Qué vs Cuál – Differences & Meanings in Spanish


As interrogative (question)  words, ‘qué’ and ‘cuál’ are quite important to pose questions in Spanish. Depending on the context, both qué and cuál can be translated either as ‘what’ or ‘which’. Therefore, knowing when to use these words can be challenging for new Spanish speakers. 

So, what’s the difference between qué vs cuál? When meaning ‘what’, qué asks for a definition, time, or explanation, whereas cuál is used to ask for personal information. When meaning ‘which’, ‘qué’ asks about objects and preferences. ‘Cuál’ asks to make a choice between two options.

Since most of the mistakes with question words are related to ‘qué’ vs ‘cuál’, in this article, we’ll explain the difference between these words. Then, so you know how to use each word correctly, we’ll provide you with phrase structures and examples that you can use to practice and master these two words.

What’s the difference between qué vs cuál

Both qué and cuál are Spanish words used to ask questions. Generally, qué means ‘what’ and cuál means ‘which’. However, this is not always the case. Depending on the context, they could either be translated as ‘what’ or ‘which’ and most of the time these words are not interchangeable.

Qué Cuál
Definitions 

Uses
Means ‘what’ when asking for: 
1. Definitions 
2. Explanations
3. Meanings
4. Time

Means ‘which’ when asking about:
1. Preferences
2. Objects
Means ‘what’ when asking about personal information. 

Means ‘which’ when asking people to: 
1. Choose or; 
2. Identify an object from a larger group.
Variants None Singular: Cuál 
Plural: Cuáles
Examples ¿Alguien sabe qué son los tacos?
Does anybody know what tacos are?

Ismael, ¿qué pastel quieres probar?
Ismael, which cake do you want to try?
Adriana, ¿cuáles son tus colores favoritos?
Adriana, what’s are your favorite colors?

¿Cuál mochila quieres? ¿La negra o la azul?
Which backpack do you want? The black or the blue one?

In the following sections, we’ll talk more in-depth about these words and how to use them. 

When and How to use Qué and Cuál 

In English, ‘what’ and ‘which’ are mutually exclusive terms, however as we’ve seen above, qué and cuál are usually exclusive and distinct (i.e. not interchangeable), but there can be overlap and sometimes qué can mean ‘which’.

Below, we’ll go into further detail on when to choose which interrogative word to use given the situation and how to use them in sentences.

Qué: Asking for definitions and explanations – What

As mentioned before, most of the time ‘qué’ is the direct translation of ‘what’. In these cases, our purpose is to ask about the time or get to get an explanation, a meaning, or a definition. Here are some basic phrases structures that you can use with this intention. 

¿Qué + [ser conjugated] + article [noun]?

Inés, ¿qué es una llama?
Inés, what is a llama?

Oye, Pepé, ¿qué son las enchiladas?
Hey, Pepé, what are enchiladas?

Usually, we use ‘qué’ and the verb ‘ser’ to ask for a definition or meaning. 

Tip: This is especially useful when you’re learning Spanish and you don’t know the meaning of a word and want to ask for the translation.

 When talking about meanings and definitions, you could also use the following variation:

¿Qué + [significar conjugated] + [noun/expression]?

Inés, ¿qué significa güey en español?
What does güey mean in Spanish?

¿Qué significa ‘tomar al toro por los cuernos’?
What is the meaning of ‘tomar al toro por los cuernos’?‘

Although the previous examples and structures are meant to help you ask about meanings and definitions, you can use ‘qué’ to get any sort of explanation or to ask about the time. 

¿Qué + [verb conjugated] + [complement]?

Disculpa, ¿qué hora es?
Excuse me, what time is it?

¿Qué hace un contador, Diego?
Diego, ¿qué hace un contador?

Oigan, ¿qué van a hacer en Costa Rica?
Hey guys, what are you going to do in Costa Rica?

Related: How to use ser in Spanish

Qué: Asking about preferences and objects – Which

We mentioned before that in some instances, ‘qué’ can be used to ask about preferences and objects. In these situations, ‘qué’ means ‘which’. This is the phrase structure that we use for this case: 

¿Qué + [noun] + [verb conjugated]? 

¿Qué color te gusta?
Which color do you like? 

Luis, ¿qué computadora me recomiendas que compre?
Luis, which computer do you recommend me to buy?

¿Sabes qué países va a visitar Mario en verano?
Do you know which countries Mario is going to visit in the summer? 

As mentioned before, in this context, you could also use ‘cuál’. 

¿Cuál + [verb conjugated]?

¿Cuál color te gusta?
Which color do you like? 

Luis, ¿cuál computadora me recomiendas que compre?
Luis, which computer do you recommend me to buy?

In this situation, there’s something that you need to keep in mind. In Spain, people use more ‘qué’ than ‘cuál’ and, in Latinamerican countries, it’s the other way around. However, both words are correct in this context. 

Take Note: Even though qué doesn’t have a plural form, it can work when referring to plural nouns. In these cases, you only need to conjugate the verb properly. 

Cuál: choosing from a group of objects – Which

We also use ‘cuál’ when we want to ask people to choose between multiple objects or ideas. Here is the sentence structure to build these types of questions as well as some examples:

¿Cuál + de + [article / pronoun] + [verb conjugated]?

Sergio, ¿cuál de estos museos es mejor?
Sergio, which of these museums is the best?

No sé qué color elegir, Mayra, ¿cuáles de estas blusas te gusta?
I don’t know what color to pick, Mayra, which of these blouses you like?

The previous structure is kind of long because it allows us to describe the objects that we want someone to choose from. However, if the context is clear enough, you can make your sentences shorter:

¿Cuál + [noun] +  [verb conjugated]?

Sergio, ¿cuál museo es mejor?
Sergio, which museum is better?

No sé qué color elegir, Mayra, ¿cuál blusa te gusta?
I don’t know what color to pick, Mayra, which blouse you like?

Take Note: Cuál has a plural form. When using it, we’re asking people to choose more than one object.

Cuál: Identifying people or objects – Which

One big difference between ‘cual’ and ‘qué’ is that in Spanish we use ‘cuál’ when we want to identify an object from a specific group. In this context, ‘cuál’ would be translated as ‘which’. Here are some examples and phrase structures that you can use:

¿Cuál + ser [conjugated]?

¿Cuál es el salón de español?
Which one is the Spanish classroom?

Giovanna, ¿cuál es tu mochila? 
Giovanna, which one is your backpack?

Juan, ¿cuáles son las playas más bonitas de Cuba?
Juan, which are the most beautiful beaches in Cuba?

In this case, it’s very common that new Spanish learners use both ‘qué’ and ‘cuál’. First, they will use ‘qué’ to ask about a definition or explanation. Then, they will use ‘cuál’ to get more specific details. Here is an example: 

SpanishEnglish
Tú: Oye, ¿qué es el tequila?You: Hey, what’s tequila?
Tu amigo: Es una bebida mexicana.Your friend: It’s a Mexican drink.
Tú: Y, ¿cuál sabe mejor?You: And which one is the best?

Additionally, in conversational Spanish, sometimes people may use ‘cuál’ instead of ‘quién’  to identify a person from a larger group of people. However, keep in mind that in this context, we’re actually able to see this group of people.

¡Hay muchas mujeres rubias en la sala! ¿Cuál de todas es tu novia?
There are a lot of blond women in the living room! Which of them is your girlfriend?

Cuál: Asking for personal information – What

Usually cuál is translated into ‘which’ with the sole exception when asking questions to get people’s personal information. In this context, it’s english equivalent is ‘what’ and we can use ‘cuál’ to get information such as:

  • Name
  • Phone number
  • Address
  • Email
  • Marital status
  • Major / Career 
  • Passwords 
  • Favorite things 

Here are some examples of how to use ‘cuál’ for this situation:

Naomi, ¿cuál es tu apellido?
Naomi, what’s your last name?

Agustín, ¿cuál es la carrera de tu hermano?
Agustín, ¿what’s your brother’s major?

Si quieres, puedo pasar por ti, ¿cuál es tu dirección?
If you want, I can pick you up, what’s your address? 

¿Tú sabes cuáles son los colores favoritos the Regina?
Do you know which ones are Regina’s favorite colors?

Take Note: When talking about preferences and favorite things, ‘qué’ is more used in Spain whereas ‘cuál’ is more popular in Latin American countries. The main difference between these situations is the grammar elements you use: 

¿Cuál + ser [conjugated]?

¿Cuál es tu color favorito? What’s your favorite color?

¿Qué + [noun] + [verb conjugated]? 

¿Qué color es tu favorito? What’s your favorite color?

Wrapping Up

In this article, we learned the differences between ‘qué’ and ‘cuál’ in Spanish. Here are the key points to remember:

Key points

Qué: 

  • It’s translated as what when asking for meanings, translations, definitions, explanations or time. 
  • It only has a singular form. It does not have a plural form. 
  • Means which when asking about people’s preferences and objects. 

Cuál:

  • Means what when asking about personal information such as name, address, email, favorite things, etc. 
  • Otherwise, it’s always translated as which
  • Has plural and form that need to match with the noun we’re talking about. 
  • Identifies an object or a person from a larger group. 
  • Asks about preferences and objects. 
  • It can be used to ask people to make a choice between two or more objects. 

Related Resources

Qué vs Cuál Spanish Quiz

Daniela Sanchez

¡Hola! Soy Daniela Sanchez, I’ve taught Spanish in Mexico to a wide array of foreigners. From students and tourists to doctors and soldiers who’ve moved and visited here over the years. During the day I’m a freelancer and marketer, while at night I’m here writing for students of the world wide web looking to learn Spanish. I hope you find what you’re looking here during your journey into Español 🙂 Read More About Me

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