Interrogative words are used to request specific information and are placed at the beginning of a question. In Spanish, they are: qué (what), cómo (how), cuál (which), quién (who), dónde (where), cuándo (when), cuánto, cuánta (how much), cuántos, cuántas (how many), and por qué (why).
Most of them have an exact equivalent in English, for instance: dónde = “where,” but some of them can have more than one, like how cuál can be “what” or “which.” Additionally, some interrogative words combine with prepositions to give different meanings.
Are you wondering: “¿Dónde puedo aprender sobre las palabras interrogativas? (Where can I learn about interrogative words)?” The answer is here, so keep reading!
Table of Contents
For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end of the post.
How do we use interrogatives in questions?
Interrogative words in Spanish are used very similarly to English interrogatives: they are placed at the beginning of a direct question:
What do you want?
Or they can be used in indirect questions:
No sé qué quieres.
I don’t know what you want.
- Interrogative words always carry a written accent to distinguish them from Spanish relative pronouns or adverbs.
Where do you live?
No sé dónde vive.
I don’t know where he lives.
Esta es la casa donde vivo.
This is the house where I live.
To learn more about direct and indirect questions, and yes/no questions, head over to “How to build questions in Spanish?”
Now that we know the basics, let’s see how to use each one!
¿Qué? is the most common interrogative word and also the most versatile. The answer to these questions are a specific object, action, or definition.
This interrogative pronoun can be used with the following structures:
|¿Qué + noun?||An object/idea||¿Qué equipo ganó el torneo?||Which team won the tournament?|
|¿Qué + verb?||An object/idea|
|¿Qué necesitas para ser feliz?|
¿Qué hiciste ayer?
|What do you need to be happy?|
What did you do yesterday?
|¿Qué + ser?||Definition||¿Qué es un pronombre?||What is a pronoun?|
¿Cuál? is used when there is a need to distinguish an item or person out of a group. It has a plural form ¿cuáles? that will agree with the plural noun it refers to.
¿Cuáles son tus libros favoritos?
What are your favorite books?
Cuál can translate to “what” or “which (one),” depending on the structure it’s used in, so let’s break them down:
- ¿Cuál + ser?
The forms with the verb “to be” ¿Cuál es? and ¿Cuáles son? are used when the answer is a specific object or objects.
¿Cuál es tu color favorito?
What is your favorite color?
In the example above we are asking to pinpoint the specific color out of all the colors that exist.
- ¿Cuál + other verbs?
These forms are used when the answer is a choice from a selection of things, this translates to “which one(s).”
Entre café y té ¿cuál prefieres?
Between coffee and tea, which one do you prefer?
- ¿Cuál + de + noun?
Cuál is usually followed by a verb, but the question cuál de is followed by a noun that is accompanied by a definite article or a demonstrative adjective. This expression is used to make a selection from a group of options that have been previously mentioned or are known in advance,.
¿Cuál de los/estos vestidos te gustó más?
Which one of the/these dresses did you like better?
There is previous knowledge of what dresses the question refers to: the dresses you tried on, the ones you saw in the store, etc.
Notice that cuál can also be translated as “what.” So, what is the difference with qué? To learn more about the difference between qué and cuál, click the link!
¿Quién? is used when asking about a person and it has a plural form: quiénes to inquire about more than one person.
¿Quién es esa persona?
Who is that person?
¿Quiénes son los campeones?
Who are the champions?
Quién combines with the preposition a when the answer of the question is either a direct or indirect object.
¿A quién viste en la reunión?
Who did you see in the meeting?
Vi a Tomás.
I saw Tomás.
¿A quién le entregaste el paquete?
Who did you give the package to?
(Le entregué el paquete) a Miguel.
(I gave the package) to Miguel.
¿Dónde? is used when asking about a place. It’s always followed by a verb.
¿Dónde compraste ese cuadro?
Where did you buy that painting?
¿Adónde? (a + dónde) means “where to;” it is used to express directionality.
Where are you going?
Keep reading to learn more about how prepositions combine with interrogative pronouns!
¿Cuándo? is used when asking about time. It’s followed by a verb.
¿Cuándo es Navidad? When is Christmas?
⤷TIP Sometimes native speakers change the order of the verb and the noun, so cuándo can be followed by a noun for stylistic reasons.
¿Cuándo las hojas comenzarána cambiar de color?
¿Cuándo comenzarán a cambiar de color las hojas?
When will leaves start to change their color?
¿Cómo? is used when asking about manner or procedure and is always followed by a verb. The answer explains the way in which the action is performed.
¿Cómo camina un caracol?
How does a snail walk?
Un caracol camina lentamente.
A snail walks slowly.
¿Cómo envío un archivo desde mi teléfono?
How do I send a file from my phone?
How + adjective and how + adverb are never translated as ¿cómo? Instead, we use qué + tan + adjective/adverb for questions like “how big,” “how far,” etc.
How big is your house?
¿Qué tan grande es tu casa?
How far do you live?
¿Qué tan lejos vives?
How fast can you run?
¿Qué tan rápido pueden correr?
Or we simply use different phrases: How tall is he? can be translated as ¿Cuánto mide? (Lit: how much length (does he have)?), ¿Qué estatura tiene? (Lit: What stature does he have?)
To ask about quantity like in “how much/many,” use ¿cuánto?, see below ⇩
‘¿Cuánto?’ (How many/much?)
¿Cuánto? asks about quantity or amount, and it can be used as an adjective, a pronoun, or an adverb.
When used as an adverb, it’s invariable (always cuánto) and it’s followed by a verb.
How much does it cost?
When used as an adjective or pronoun, cuánto has to agree in number and gender with the noun they modify or replace. Therefore, it has four forms: cuánto, cuánta, cuántos, cuántas.
When followed by a noun it’s an adjective:
¿Cuántos hermanos tienes?
How many siblings do you have?
¿Cuánta harina necesitas para el pastel?
How much flour do you need for the cake?
And when followed by a verb, it’s a pronoun:
How many are there?
How many arrived?
Notice how the pronoun agrees in gender and number with the noun it’s replacing; even if it’s not there, it’s understood by context.
Tengo cuatro hermanas, ¿cuántas tienes tú?
I have four sisters. How many do you have?
⤷TIP Notice that English makes a distinction between “how many” and “how much” with count and mass nouns. Spanish does not have this contrast!
How many books do you have?
¿Cuántos libros tienes?
How much money do you have?
‘¿Por qué?’ (Why?)
¿Por qué? is used to ask for a reason or explanation:
¿Por qué trajiste tanta comida?
Why did you bring so much food?
¿Por qué Luis no me habla?
Why doesn’t Luis talk to me?
When followed by no, it can be used to make invitations or suggestions:
¿Por qué no vamos a la playa?
Why don’t we go to the beach?
Notice that ¿por qué? (why?) is written as two separate words and qué carries a written accent. To answer, use the single word porque (because), with no written accent.
¿Por qué sonríes?
Why do you smile?
Porque estoy feliz.
Because I am happy.
How to use interrogatives with prepositions in Spanish?
Interrogatives can be used in combination with different prepositions: a (to), de (about), en (in), para (for), etc.
¿De qué me hablas?
What are you talking to me about?
¿En dónde estás?
Where are you (specifically)?
There are two types of combinations:
There are verbs that come with a preposition, for example: jugar a (to play), olvidarse de (to forget). If the preposition can be followed by a noun, you ask a question by placing the preposition before the interrogative word.
Ex: pensar en… (to think about)
¿En qué piensas?
Who are you thinking about?
¿En qué piensas?
What are you thinking about?
For verbs with prepositions that can only take an infinitive, it’s not possible to place the preposition in front of the interrogative when asking a question. For instance:
aprender a + infinitive
¿Dónde aprendiste a cocinar? Where did you learn how to cook?
acabar de + infinitive
¿Cuándo acabaste de estudiar? When did you finish studying?
Some interrogatives combine with certain prepositions to make more specific questions:
¿De dónde vienen? Where are you coming from?
¿Desde cuándo hablas español? Since when do you speak Spanish?
Qué, cuál, and quién can combine with almost all prepositions, whereas cuándo typically combines with Spanish prepositions of time and dónde with Spanish prepositions of place.
For a list of possible combos, check out this list of Spanish prepositions used with interrogative words!
Notice that unlike English, prepositions are always placed before the interrogative for both direct and indirect questions. It’s incorrect to place them at the end!
¿De dónde es?
Where is he from?
No sé de dónde es.
I don’t know where he’s from.
Indirect questions are another way of asking questions in indirect or reported speech. They are found in subordinate clauses following expressions like: me pregunto… (I wonder), no sé… (I don’t know), no entiendo…(I don’t understand). Indirect questions use interrogative words and don’t require question marks:
Me pregunto por qué no vino Juan.
I wonder why Juan didn’t come.
A count noun is a noun that can be modified with a numeral into a plural.
The man bought 5 bananas.
Mary owns 3 cars.
A mass noun, also called an uncountable noun, is a noun that cannot be counted and usually lacks a plural form. These nouns are usually measured with countable units.
John bought 8 pieces of furniture.
Mary ate 2 sticks of celery.
Fred is listening to music.