Monthly Word / La palabra del mes

Sept - Oct 2004 ~ Spanish that Works Review

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Ways to say "What?" La palabra del mes

Question Words

The following question words may be used to translate the English word “What?” into Spanish.  Usage depends on context.

  •  ¿Qué? / KEH (“what”)

  • ¿Cuál? / KWAHL (literally “which”)

  • ¿Cómo? / COH-moh (literally “how”)

NOTE:  The “dd” in the pronunciation guide is a tapped “r,” similar to the fast “dd” of the word “buddy,” and the “th” in the guide is the voiced “th” of “brother.” The “eh” of the guide is like the Canadian “eh?”, similar to the “a” of “gate.”  You should stress the syllable written in all caps.

When “what” is “what”

The direct translation of “What?” into Spanish is ¿Qué? / keh. Be careful of pronunciation – the Spanish qu is a “kuh” sound, not a “kwuh” sound. The letter “u” is silent after “q.”

You may use the word ¿Qué? directly in front of a verb such as want, should, or read, to express the concept of “what.” For example:

  • ¿Qué quiere usted? (What do You-polite want?*)

  • ¿Qué debo hacer? (What should I do?)

  • ¿Qué están leyendo los niños? (What are the children reading?)

*NOTE: The words “You” and “Your” are often capitalized in Spanish that Works™ to remind you that you are using the polite forms usted (You) and su (Your), and not the “buddy-buddy” forms tú (you) and tu (your). The polite forms are more appropriate for customer service situations, and simplify the verb conjugations for the beginner. 

¿Qué? with a noun

You can also use ¿Qué? / keh in front of a noun, to ask what (or which) ones. For example:

  • ¿Qué lenguas habla usted? (What languages do You-polite speak?)

  • ¿Qué color quiere? (What color do You-polite want?)

  • ¿Que libros tienen ustedes? (What books do You all have?)

When “what” is which”

The translations get a little trickier with the verb es (is). 

You may use ¿Qué? with “es” when you want a definition – either practical or philosophical. For example:

  • ¿Qué es esto? (What’s this? – practical definition)

  • ¿Qué es la vida? (What is life? – philosophical definition)

However, to ask “What is...” (Your name, address, phone number, the date, etc.) you use the word ¿Cuál?, which literally means “which.” For example:

  • ¿Cuál es su nombre? (What is Your name?)

It is as if you are saying to the person, “Out of all the names possible, which one is your name?” This response calls for a choice of one name versus another, not a definition of what a name is.

Contrast this question with...

  • ¿Qué es un nombre? (What is a name?)

In this case, you are asking for the philosophical definition of a name, and not just one possible name. You might as well add, “that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet...”

Please note that you may hear people in the United States saying ¿Qué es su nombre? instead of ¿Cuál es su nombre?, but native speakers would not consider this to be correct Spanish.

Which one for "which one"?

You may also hear Spanish speakers use the word ¿Cuál? (instead of ¿Qué?) in front of a noun, to ask what (or which) one. For example:

  • ¿Cuál color quiere? (What / which color do You-polite want?)

  • ¿Cuál libro tienen? (What / which book do they have?)

According to the grammar books, only ¿Qué? must be used directly in front of a noun, so the above sentences are not technically not “standard” Spanish. However, educated native Latin American speakers sometimes prefer ¿Cuál? over ¿Qué? in such cases. 

“How” as “what”

Finally, when you don’t hear or understand someone, it’s not polite to say ¿Qué? / keh (WHAT?????)

Instead, use ¿Cómo? / KOH-moh? (How - did you say it?) 

Incidentally, beginning Spanish students sometimes mistakenly think that ¿Cómo? means “what,” because of the colloquial expressions ¿Cómo se llama usted? (and ¿Cómo te llamas?), which literally mean “How do you call yourself,” but translate into English as a more colloquial way of saying “What is your name?” 

However, the literal translation of ¿Cómo? / KOH-moh? is “how,” as in ¿Cómo está? (How are You?)

¿Qué? as “how,” “that,” and “than”

You may also see the words Qué (and que) in contexts besides questions. For example, qué is used in Spanish in exclamations, where in English we would use “how” or “what a...” 

  • ¡Qué bueno! (How nice!)

  • ¡Qué pena! (What a shame!)

  • ¡Qué día más bonito! (What a pretty day!)

Also, the word que in Spanish (without accent mark) is used as a relative pronoun or conjunction, in which case it won’t translate as “what,” but as “that,” “than,” or not really exactly as either of these. For example:

  • El libro que tengo es bueno. (The book that I have is good.) 

  • La niña es más grande que el niño. (The girl is bigger than the boy.)

  • Prefiero que vengan. (I prefer that they come.)

  • Que aproveche. (Enjoy your meal.)

  • Que en paz descanse. (Rest in peace.)

Remember it! 

As you can see from our discussion of the various ways to say “What?” in Spanish, things don’t always translate word for word from one language to another. 

Learn the question words first with their literal translations, and then learn useful example questions as complete expressions. For example, first learn ¿Qué? (what?) and then learn ¿Qué es esto? (What is this?)
. Learn ¿Cuál? (which, what) and then learn ¿Cuál es su nombre? (What is Your name?) It’s easier and more practical to learn the example first, and then study the rule when you have a solid reference point.

To remember ¿Qué? / keh? (what?), imagine yourself as an alien looking at a box of Special K cereal, or a Circle K convenience store, and saying to your Earthling hosts ¿Qué es eso? (What is that?)

To remember ¿Cuál? / kwahl (which?), imagine yourself as an Australian pet shop owner showing a customer a tree full of koalas and saying ¿Cuál koala quiere? (Which koala do you want?)

To remember ¿Cómo? / KOH-moh (how?), imagine yourself at a party listening to music by Perry Como and asking, ¿Cómo le gusta la música? (“How do you like the music?”)

  • ¿Qué? / keh? (what?) 

  • ¿Cuál? / kwahl? (which?)

  • ¿Cómo? / KOH-moh? (how?)

©2004 Elizabeth Almann

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