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Saying 'What' in Spanish

Word Choice Depends on Usage, Meaning

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Question: I have seen the word "what" used as qué, cómo, lo que and cuál in the Spanish language. How does a person know when to use the correct version of "what"?

Answer: It depends on how the word is being used.

Qué as "what": Most of the time, in a variety of uses, qué is a good translation for "what." Here are a few examples:

  • ¿Qué hora es? What time is it?
  • ¡Qué mujer! What a woman!
  • ¿Qué es la verdad? What is the truth?
  • No sé qué hacer con mi vida. I don't know what to do with my life.
  • ¿Qué es la ONU? What is the U.N.?
  • ¿Qué pasa? What's happening?
Cuál for "which one": As a pronoun, cuál or cuáles is used to say "what" when it means "which one" or "which ones."
  • ¿Cuál prefieres? Which/what (one) do you prefer?
  • ¿Cuáles prefieres? Which/what (ones) do you prefer?
  • ¿Cuál vas a comprar? Which/what (one) are you going to buy?
Sometimes, cuál is used as a pronoun where a choice of some sort is implied, even though "which" wouldn't work in English. There's no clear rule on these, but as you learn the language the word choice will seem natural.
  • ¿Cuál es el problema? What is the problem? (Literal translation: Which is the problem?)
  • ¿Cuál es su motivación? What is her motive? (Literal translation: Which is her motive?)
Qué or cuál as an adjective meaning "what": As an adjective (that is, before a noun) to mean "what," qué is usually used, although cuál is used in some regions or by some speakers. Qué is almost always the safer choice; cuál might be considered substandard in some areas.
  • ¿Qué (cuál) manzana prefieres? Which/what apple do you prefer?
  • ¿Qué (cuáles) camisas vas a comprar? Which/what shirts are you going to buy?
Lo que meaning "that which": Lo que can be translated as "what" when it means "that which." This is especially common when "what" is the subject of a statement in English.
  • Lo que me dijo es una mentira. What (that which) he told me is a lie.
  • Lo que me enoja es su actitud hacia mi madre. What (that which) makes me mad is his attitude toward my mother.
Cómo meaning "what": Cómo is seldom used to mean "what," except as an interjection expressing incredulity. In some areas, ¿cómo? is used to ask someone to say something over again, although in some other areas it can be considered mildly rude.
  • ¡Cómo! No lo creo. What! I don't believe it.
  • ¡Cómo! No puede ser. What! It can't be.
  • ¿Cómo? What did you say?

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