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Gerald Erichsen

"De Qué Color Es" or "Qué Color Es" — What's the Difference?

By February 18, 2013

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I teach beginning Spanish and the lesson material used the phrase "¿Qué color es la calculadora?" Then later in the lesson it uses the phrase "¿De qué color es tu mochila?" A student has asked what the difference is. The lesson gives no explanation at all and I can come up with nothing that really explains it in detail, though I told her the basic difference is that the latter is asking more like "What color is it made of?" as opposed to just "What color is it?" Maybe a forum topic? (though I'd like to give this girl a more erudite answer).

First of all, I don't think your lesson material used a good example. That sentence strikes me as asking, "What color is calculator?" as if calculator is a color, or at least a question you might ask if the calculator is where both the speaker and listener can easily see it.

I'd tell the student something like this (although anyone with a better explanation is invited to comment below): The standard way to ask what color something is (as when you don't know what something looks like) is "¿De qué color es ... ?" Without the de the question usually would be understood to be asking "which color" or "what sort of color," that is, about the color itself.

So, "¿De qué color es la mochila?" would mean something like asking what color the backpack is because you don't know what it looks like. But "¿Qué color es este?" might be something you would ask if you saw something strangely colored and didn't know the name of the color, like if it were chartreuse or coral or something like that. Or if you were teaching a toddler the colors you might ask the question to get him or her to tell you the name of the color. Or you might ask something like "¿Qué color es el turquesa?" if you didn't know what turquoise looks like.

Now it may be that there's some colloquial usage that I'm not aware of where the de isn't necessary when asking what color something is. But at least in this case, it's easier for me to assume the writer just left the word off by mistake. It's easy to do, as I can attest because leaving out words is one of my most common writing mistakes.


February 20, 2013 at 4:55 pm
(1) Leticia Rodríguez says:

Both sentences mean the same thing. I would say that we are only “lazy” to say “de qué …” and we just say “qué …”

February 20, 2013 at 5:39 pm
(2) Ken says:

¿De qué color? = of what color ¿De qué color es la casa? is best translated as: Of what color is the house? I see nothing wrong with this construction, but it isn’t the typical way we ask the question in English. We would say, “What color is the house” and virtually no one over 5 years old would think we were asking for an explanation of a color called “house.” I doubt that native Spanish speakers would understand ¿Qué color es la casa? to mean “I want to know about the color “casa” as if “casa” were a name for a specific color as are red, blue, and green. If I wanted someone to describe a color, rather than tell me the color of a specified object, I would ask for descriptions and names of things which exhibit that color. No one could describe “green” without referring to examples such as typical in growing foliage.

February 20, 2013 at 10:00 pm
(3) Alan Harris says:

Even though the statement seems trivial and easy to interpret, I appreciate the way this lesson relates the words, and their arrangement, according to the logical intention of the communication. One of my “pet” peeves with the individual grammar lessons has always been the limited use of literal translations in the examples used to illustrate the subject of the lesson. When reading the examples I frequently find myself thinking: (1) Given the English translation provided; would this same example be used to illustrate other grammatical aspects of the Spanish sentence. (the English translations used now often seem to contain words which are not actually present in the Spanish portion of the example. (2) The skill I need – with speaking Spanish my objective – is to be able to organize the words in my mind, the same way a Spanish person would, in theirs, to fit the idea they wish to communicate. Quite often, however awkward or unlikely the literal translation sounds in English, I can determine for myself, the many ways I might communicate the idea in English. (That’s not the piece I need help with). What the literal translation gives me is the mental picture I need to communicate my message using the words (and grammar) available in the Spanish language. Imagine learning how to eat, with chopsticks, by having someone tell you how to use a knife and folk. Both get the food from the plate to the mouth.

February 21, 2013 at 5:28 pm
(4) Trudie says:

I agree with Alan Harris regarding the inclusion of literal examples. Every learner is different but I for one, find SEEING the literal translation extremely helpful in understanding sentence structure. Loose interpretations help me learn a specific phrase and when to use it but not learn the language and how to speak it. More literal translations would be very helpful!

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