Qué and cuál can both be translated to English as “what” or “which,” which makes the distinction between these two a challenging one. However, each one pairs up with specific words to express different questions. The choice you make will determine the answer you get, so learning the different combinations and their meanings will help you ask the right questions. What are the main differences between these two? Here you will find the answer.
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How to use ‘qué’ and ‘cuál’ in Spanish?
Qué and cuál can be followed by the verb ser (to be), other verbs, or nouns. Let’s review the structures of qué and cuál:
|+ ser (to be)||¿Qué es Mango?|
What is Mango?
|¿Cuál es tu dirección?|
What is your address?
|+ other verbs||¿Qué quieres?|
What do you want?
Which one do you want?
|+ noun||¿Qué película quieres ver?|
Which movie do you want to see?
|+ “de” before the noun |
¿Cuál de las películas que vimos fue tu favorita?
Which of the movies we watched was your favorite?
For a comprehensive review of qué, cuál, and other interrogative words, head over to: “How to use interrogatives in Spanish?”
Now, let’s compare each of these cases.
With the verb ‘ser’
Qué + ser is used to ask about a definition or the meaning of something. It can literally be translated as “what sort of…” or “what kind of thing is…”
¿Qué es una tortilla en México? What is a tortilla in Mexico?
-Es una comida hecha de maíz. -It’s a food made out of corn.
⤷TIP To ask “What is this?” use “¿Qué es esto?”
Whereas cuál with ser asks for a particular detail or information:
¿Cuál es la capital de Chile? What is the capital of Chile?
-La capital de Chile es Santiago. -The capital of Chile is Santiago.
Let’s compare these two uses side by side:
¿Qué es “tu apellido”? ¿Cuál es tu apellido? What is your last name?
If we use “qué,” we are literally asking what the words “tu apellido” mean. Whereas, with cúal, we are asking the person to tell us their last name.
For more on the use of the verb ser in Spanish, click the link!
Verbs except ‘ser’
The difference here is clear: use qué to ask for general information, just like with the English word “what” and use cuál to ask about choice, like the English “which one.”
¿Qué buscas? ¿Cuál buscas?
What are you looking for? Which one are you looking for?
-Busco una camiseta. -Busco la camiseta roja de manga corta.
-I’m looking for a t-shirt. -I’m looking for the red short sleeve t-shirt.
When we want to ask about objects, we can use both qué or cuál, but only qué will be followed directly by a noun and cuál needs the preposition de before adding the noun. There is also a difference in meaning, because the preposition de will refer to a group from which you’re going to make a selection. Let’s see some examples:
¿Qué película viste? ¿Cuál de las películas viste?
Which movie did you watch? ¿Which one of the movies did you watch?
-Vi “La guerra de las galaxias” -Vi la primera.
-I saw Star Wars. -I saw the first one.
Let’s recap the main differences:
- Both qué and cuál can be followed by ser, but:
- Qué asks for a definition
- Cuál asks about particular information
- Both qué and cuál can be followed by verbs, but:
- Qué = what
- Cuál = which one
- Only qué can be followed directly by a noun to mean “what/which”
- Cuál needs preposition de before adding a noun to mean “which one of…”
Find an activity on Spanish interrogatives here!