Difference between “qué” and “cuál”

Video lesson + interactive exercises

“Qué” or “cuál”? Do you get confused when using them, too? Don’t worry, that’s quite common, especially if you are an English or German speaker, because they can mean both, “which” / “what” or “was” and “welcher”.

In today’s blog entry, you’ll learn to distinguish between “qué” and “cuál” and to use them correctly. We’ll have a look at the various possible combinations using clear examples for each of them. This explanation is helpful for all levels, but it is probably most helpful for Spanish beginner’s levels from A1 to B1.

If you would like to watch the video lesson, you can find it at the end of this article.

What are “qué” and “cuál”?

Both are interrogative pronouns, i.e. we use them to ask questions. These pronouns tend to confuse people a lot, because each one of them has a specific function and structure that cannot be mixed, even though we can use them to ask the same thing. For this reason, it’s important to know their structure and practice it.

Main differences between “qué” and “cuál”

“Qué” is used to ask about a thing or object in general, that hasn’t been mentioned in the conversation before. Whereas “cuál” is used to ask for a thing or person, but within a group, where it has been mentioned or introduced before.

The second thing to keep in mind is that “qué” as well as “cuál” can be used when followed by:

A) the verb “ser”

B) any other verb (beber, saltar, etc.)

C) a noun (fruit, person, etc.).

Depending on what comes after the pronoun, it has a different meaning. Therefore, it’s important to know the differences between each of them.

A) “Qué” and “cuál”, followed by the verb “ser”

We use “qué + ser” to ask about a thing, person or also an idea. And we expect that the answer is a definition or description. For example:

¿Qué es la paella? La paella es un plato tradicional valenciano. (What is paella? Paella is a traditional valencian dish.)

¿Qué son los churros? Los churros son un dulce típico español para el desayuno. (What are churros? Churros are a typical Spanish sweet for breakfast.)

In the second example we use the plural.

And now we have a look at how to form the question with “cuál + ser” or “cuáles + son”,  the latter one being the plural. Here, we ask about a specific object within a group. For example:

¿Cuál es tu chaqueta? La roja. (Which one is your jacket? The red one.)

¿Cuáles son tus libros? El rojo y el azul. (Which are your books? The red and the blue one.)

You can see that with these examples of “cuál/cuáles + ser” we want to know which of the objects within a group of objects is ours. That means, we have to choose between several. In the first example, we want to know which jacket out of all the jackets is specifically ours. The second example is identical but we use the plural because we talk about more than one object.

B) “Qué” and “cuál”, followed by any other verb, except “ser”

We use “qué + verb” to ask about a thing, an idea or action. If you see, for instance, a person (e.g. Ana) looking for something in the fridge (that is, performing an action) you can ask her:

Ana, ¿qué buscas? Un zumo. Tengo sed. (Ana, what are you looking for? A juice. I’m thirsty.)

Here, for example, we asked about an object: the one Ana is looking for.

And now we have a look at “cuál/cuáles + verb”. In this case, we ask in order to know which object, out of a specific group, the other person wants. In addition, the object has been mentioned before during the conversation, meaning, we already know what we’re talking about. For example, we ask Ana:

¿Cuál prefieres? Zumo de piña, de naranja o de manzana.
Dame uno de piña, por favor.
(Which one do you prefer, pineapple, orange or apple juice? Please give me a pineapple juice.)

Ana chose one of all the juices to answer.

C) “Qué” and “cuál”, followed by a noun

We use “qué + noun” to ask directly about a thing or an idea. Ana, for example, is having several juices and we ask her:

Ana, ¿qué zumo te ha gustado más? El de piña. (Ana, which juice did you like the most? The pineapple juice.)

Attention! Using “cuál/cuáles + noun” you can ask the same thing, but you have to put a “de” before the noun:

“cuál/cuáles + de + noun”

For instance, you ask Ana again:

¿Cuál de los zumos te ha gustado más? El de piña. (Ana, which juice did you like the most? The pineapple juice.)

And this is where the explanation of the differences between “qué” and “cuál”, which I wanted to bring you closer with this blog entry, ends.

Below, you can find the grammar video in Spanish with examples. Watch it, and if you have problems understanding it, just activate the subtitles in Spanish, English or German. In addition, I’ll leave two exercises for you to practice what you’ve learned today.

Video lesson: Las diferencias entre «qué» y «cuál»

Interactive exercises to practice

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