What is the difference between qué and cuál in Spanish? I’m going to tell you today!
In English there are the pronouns ‘what’ to ask for a particular information about somebody or something, and ‘which’ to ask about people or things from a limited number.
In Spanish most of the time ‘what’ can be translated as qué, and ‘which’ as cuál.
However, qué has a specific function, and if you ever asked the question ¿qué es tu nombre? or if sometimes you ask ¿qué es la pregunta?, you should continue reading because that’s a mistake, haha.
But don’t worry! Its one that even some of my most advanced students make from time to time.
Are you ready? Let’s go!
The difference between qué and cuál in Spanish
Naturally, we can use qué and cuál to ask for information about both things and people.
In order to make the explanation as clear as possible, let’s examine how these pronouns work in each case, and only then, that specific function of qué I mentioned earlier.
When to use qué and cuál: things
We use qué when we ask about things in general:
—¿Qué le vamos a comprar a Verónica por su cumpleaños?
—Ella quiere un celular nuevo.
We use qué + noun when we want to ask about something within a certain category:
—¿Qué regalo le vamos a comprar a Verónica? (qué = category ‘gifts’)
—Un celular con una buena cámara.
Finally, we use cuál when we ask about one or several things from a group that has been identified already, either because we have mentioned it before or it’s clear by context:
—Creo que el iPhone y el Samsung son muy buenos. ¿Cuál prefieres?
—El Samsung me gusta más.
It’s by context that we know that cuál refers clearly to a specific mobile phone.
A clarification before moving on! Although not correct in Spain, the construction cuál + noun is perfectly correct and acceptable in Latin America.
If you are interested in knowing more about the differences between Spain and Latin America Spanish, you can read this article on my blog!
And of course, cuál is singular and cuáles is plural:
—¿Cuáles son los celulares más populares en el mercado?
—iPhone, Samsung y Motorola.
—¿Y tú cuál prefieres?
—Yo prefiero Motorola.
You can read my article about plural in Spanish to learn more about agreement in grammatical number.
Let’s carry on!
And what about people?
Obviously, we use quién/quiénes when we ask about people:
—¿Quién te escribió esa carta?
Qué + noun is another option when we want to ask about somebody:
—Una estudiante de mi escuela.
And we also use quién/quiénes or cuál/cuáles when we ask for one or several people from a group that has been identified already, either because we have mentioned it before or it’s clear by context:
—Sí, la estudiante de intercambio.
—¿Cuál? ¿La inglesa o la estadounidense?
And just as it’s the case with things, while in Spain it’s not correct, it’s normal to hear the construction cuál + noun in Latin America.
Now let’s see what happens when qué and cuál are followed by the verb ser!
¿Qué/cuál es tu nombre? : when to use qué and cuál
The key to differentiate these pronouns when followed by ser is that cuál is used to identify within a group, whereas qué is used to define. Here are some examples!
—¿Cuál es la capital de México?
—CDMX. (from Latin capitals, such as Buenos Aires, , Lima, etc., we identify CDMX as Mexico’s)
—¿Cuál es tu signo?
—Virgo. (from astrologial signs, such as Taurus, Leo, etc., I identify Virgo as mine)
Since qué + ser is used to define, you should think about it as looking for a definiton on a dictionary!
—¿Qué es CDMX?
—Es la capital de México.
—¿Qué es Virgo?
—Un signo del zodiaco.
So when beginner students translate the question ‘what’s your name?’ from English into Spanish as ¿qué es tu nombre? the meaning is a little bit different:
—¿Qué es tu nombre?
—Es la palabra que me identifica respecto a otras personas.
—¿Cuál es tu nombre?
—Kevin. (from all of the masculine names in the world, Kevin is mine)
That’s the one you usually mean to ask, right? 😉
As for the question ¿qué es la pregunta? used to ask someone to clarify what they are asking, it isn’t right precisely for this!
—¿Qué es la pregunta?
—Una herramienta para obtener información.
—¿Cuál es la pregunta?
—Lo que quiero saber es qué piensas de este asunto.
And that’s all for today!
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