“Cuál” vs. “qué” in Spanish: what’s the difference?
Published on February 27, 2023 / Updated on January 3, 2024
Both cuál and qué translate to variations of “what” in Spanish. Generally, the question word cuál is used when there’s a specific set of choices or when the answer is short, like a name. The question word qué is used when we expect a long explanation, like a definition. Of course, these are general rules, and specific uses of cuál vs. qué in Spanish may differ depending on the context. Here’s an easy tip to keep in mind:
Is it perfect? No, but it will help you keep things straight as we dig deeper into the concrete uses of cuál vs. qué in Spanish. Speaking of which, let’s dig in!
Let’s start with the literal, direct translation of each word:
Though these literal translations can help in some contexts, they aren’t consistent enough to rely on as a strict rule.
If you’re learning Spanish as an English speaker, it’s best not to translate cuál or qué directly into English. There are many instances in which the Spanish usage is different from the “what” and “which” we use in English.
For example, the question “What is your name?” in Spanish uses cuál: ¿Cuál es tú nombre? As you can see, it’s best not to get stuck on a literal translation. Instead, get familiar with the common Spanish phrases that use qué and cuál. Thankfully, there are a lot of them!.
Qué typically shows up in questions with open-ended answers. It’s also used when the question asks you to choose from any option in the world.
When you ask for meaning, definition or explanation of something, you’ll ask with the following structure: qué + ser (to be). For example:
You can also use qué + ser to wax philosophical:
When you ask someone to choose but don’t give them preselected options, use “qué. The options are infinite:
We also use qué when selecting from a heterogenous group, or a group of distinctly different objects. For example:
When using cuál, we’re often trying to figure out the name of something or someone. The answers to cuál questions tend to be closed and specific.
The person asking a cuál question usually knows the general outline of what they’re talking about, but not the specific word or name. For example:
Questions about personal information often use ¿Cuál es…?:
Use cuál to choose from a group that is finite. In other words, when the respondent is given a closed set of options:
This also applies in cases where there’s a homogenous group of similar things:
Usually, when you misuse cuál vs. qué, it won’t change the meaning.
One exception lies in the questions “cuál de” and “qué de,” to which there are completely different meanings and responses.
This chart will help you keep track of the different uses of cuál vs. qué in Spanish.
|The name of something
|Choosing from a closed group
|cuál + verbcuál + noun
|Choosing from an infinite group
|qué + verb
|Choosing from objects in front of you
|cuál + nouncuál + verb
|Choosing from objects not in front of you
|qué + noun
So, if you want specific information like a name, use cuál. If you’re asking a more open-ended question, use qué.
Of course, that’s a general suggestion and things tend to get more granular than that. But here’s good news: If you make a mistake between the two, a native speaker will still (probably) understand you.
¿Qué esperas? (What are you waiting for?) Get out there and practice cuál vs. qué in Spanish!