Two of the common characteristics of questions in English are also common in Spanish: They often begin with a word to indicate that what follows is a question, and they usually use a word order that is different than that usually used in direct statements.
But the first thing you may notice about written Spanish questions is a punctuation difference — they always begin with an inverted question mark (¿). With the exception of Galician, a minority language of Spain and Portugal, Spanish is unique in using that symbol.
The question-indicating words, known as interrogatives, all have their equivalents in English:
- qué: what
- por qué: why
- cuándo: when
- dónde: where
- cómo: how
- cuál: which
- quién: who
- cuánto, cuánta: how much
- cuántos, cuántas: how many
(Although the English equivalents are the most common ones used to translate these words, other translations are sometimes possible.)
Several of these interrogatives can be preceded by prepositions: a quién (to whom), de quién (of whom), de dónde (from where), de qué (of what), etc.
Note that all these words have accents; generally, when the same words are used in statements, they do not have accents. There is no difference in pronunciation.
Generally, a verb follows the interrogative. Provided one's vocabulary is sufficient, most simple questions using interrogatives can readily be understood by English speakers:
- ¿Qué es eso? (What is that?)
- ¿Por qué fue a la ciudad? (Why did he go to the city?)
- ¿Qué es la capital del Perú? (What is the capital of Peru?)
- ¿Dónde está mi coche? (Where is my car?)
When the verb needs a subject other than the interrogative, it follows the verb:
- ¿Por qué fue él a la ciudad? (Why did he go to the city?)
- ¿Cuántos dólares tiene el muchacho? (How many dollars does the boy have?)
As in English, questions can be formed in Spanish without the interrogatives, although Spanish is more flexible in its word order. In Spanish, the general form is for the noun to follow the verb. The noun can either appear immediately after the verb or appear later in the sentence. In the following examples, either Spanish question is a grammatically valid way of expressing the English:
- ¿Va Pedro al mercado? ¿Va al mercado Pedro? (Is Pedro going to the market?)
- ¿Tiene que ir Roberto al banco? ¿Tiene que ir al banco Roberto? (Does Roberto have to go to the bank?)
- ¿Sale María mañana? ¿Sale mañana María? (Is María leaving tomorrow?)
As you can see, Spanish doesn't require auxiliary verbs the way that English does to form questions. The same verb forms as are used in questions are used in statements.
Also, as in English, a statement can be made into a question simply by a change in intonation (the voice tone) or, in writing, by adding question marks, although it isn't particularly common. Él es doctor. He's a doctor. ¿Él es doctor? He's a doctor?
Finally, note that when only part of a sentence is a question, in Spanish the question marks are placed around only the portion that's a question:
- Estoy feliz, ¿y tú? (I'm happy, are you?)
- Si salgo, ¿salen ellos también? (If I leave, are they leaving too?)