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Cuál vs Qué

The use of the interrogative pronouns qué (what) and cuál (which) in Spanish can sometimes be confusing for English speakers. There are certain rules about the proper use of these words, but, as usual, sometimes grammar doesn't quite catch up with how things work in the real world.

 

Witht that being said, our best advice is always to listen more and practice more. So let's see some examples of how questions with qué (what) and cuál (which) are used in real context!

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Cuál vs Qué: The Choice Factor

Generally speaking, we can say that cuál (which) is used to ask about the identity of a person or a thing in a group. Cuál is a question about choice. The pronoun qué is for questions about identity as well, but it's used in direct questions rather than in ones that involve making a choice. Here's an example where the question cuál (which) is used before a verb:

 

¿Pero cuál es el peor trabajo?

But which is the worst job?

Caption 40, 75 minutos - Del campo a la mesa - Part 8

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It would be really odd to hear someone saying ¿Qué es el mejor trabajo? It's rare, but possible, because making this substitution alters the meaning of the question completely. It's easier to understand the distinction if we compare what kind of answer these two questions would likely get:

¿Pero cuál es el peor trabajo? / But which is the worst job?
El peor trabajo es el de recogedor de basura. / The worst job is that of a garbage hauler.

¿Pero qué es el peor trabajo? / But what is the worst job?
-El peor trabajo es el menos deseable. / The worst job is the least desirable.

Now, let's check the following example. Here cuál is used before a noun:
 

¿Pero cuál juego les gusta más?

But which attraction do you like the most?

Caption 36, Guillermina y Candelario - El parque de diversiones

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This is a great example, because when used before a noun, cuál is equivalent to qué. So the following is also correct:

¿Pero qué juego les gusta más?
But which attraction do you like the most?

We believe it's actually better to see it the other way around: sometimes qué (what) is also used to ask about choices. It happens in English as well, right?
 

¿Qué color te gustaría?

What color would you like?

Caption 50, Raquel y Marisa - Agente del concesionario

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But most of the time it's just not right to use qué to ask about choices. Let's see an interesting phenomenon. In Spanish, you can use the preposition de (of) to introduce a group of things from which to pick a choice. And you can use cuál (which) before this preposition:

 

¿Cuál de esos países te gustó más?

Which one of those countries did you like most?

Caption 86, Cleer - Hobbies

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You can also use qué (what) before de (of), but then you wouldn't be asking someone to pick a favorite country from a list of countries (the ones the other person visited), you would be asking something else: 

¿Qué de esos países te gusto más? 
What [aspect] of those countries did you like the most?

It's very useful to imagine possible answers to both questions:

¿Cuál de esos países te gustó más? Which one of those countries did you like most?
Italia y Francia. / Italy and France.

¿Qué de esos países te gustó más? What aspect of those countries did you like most?
Su rica cultura y deliciosa comida. / Their rich culture and delicious food. 

But, if you place the preposition de (of) before and not after qué or cuál, you can again use them as equivalents! Why? Because now they are both right before a noun.

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¿De qué sabor quieres? = ¿De cuál sabor quieres?
What flavor do you want? = Which flavor do you want?

We'll continue to explore the use of cuál (which) and qué (what) in future lessons. 

Grammar

Combining Verbs in Spanish - Part 1 - Infinitives

In Spanish, many useful expressions are formed by combining two verbs. This type of expression is called a perífrasis verbal (verbal periphrasis) and is formed by combining a conjugated verb with a verb in the infinitive (or a gerund or participle), sometimes with a linking word between the two. A verbal periphrasis helps us to express subtle aspects of a verb's action, for example, its beginning, ending, duration, progression, etc. Let's review some examples:

In one of our videos, Leire, the lead singer of the Spanish pop band, La Oreja de Van Gogh, uses a periphrasis to express the ending of an action with the verb acabar (to finish), the preposition de, and the verb llegar (to arrive):

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Acabamos de llegar al hotel.

We just arrived at the hotel.

Caption 3, La Oreja de Van Gogh - Recién llegados a México tras 12 horas de avión...

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Therefore, you can use acabar de + a wide variety of verbs to express the ending of an action. Some examples (for the first person singular) are acabo de comer (I just ate), acabo de salir (I just went out), acabo de decir (I just said), etc.

Similarly, you can combine the verb empezar (to begin), the preposition a, and a verb in the infinitive to express the beginning of an action:
 

Si nos comemos una seta de éstas, empezamos a ver aquí pitufos de colores

If we eat one of these mushrooms, we start to see colorful smurfs here

Captions 47-48, 75 minutos Del campo a la mesa - Part 11

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To express repetition, you can use the verb volver (to go back), the preposition a, and a verb in the infinitive:
 

Si no te resulta, vuelve a empezar.

If it doesn't work for you, start over.

Caption 37, Alex Sandunga - Déjala

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Ya después me pasé a otra banda en la que... en la que volvimos a hacer covers.

Later on, I changed to another band in which... in which we did covers again.

Captions 49-50, Willy - Entrevista - Part 3

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To express intention, you can use querer (to want) and a verb in the infinitive:
 

Pero nosotros al decir en tu casa, nosotros queremos decir en la nuestra.

But we, in saying at your house, we mean at ours.

Caption 43, La Banda Chilanguense - El habla de México - Part 3

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The verb estar (to be), the preposition para, and a verb in the infinitive can be used to express intention as well:
 

No estoy para perder todo el día, ¿me entendiste?

I'm not up for wasting the whole day, do you get it?

Captions 41-42, Yago - 6 Mentiras - Part 8

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Pues claro, aquí estamos para ayudarte a encontrar lo que tú necesitas.

Well of course, we're here to help you find what you need.

Captions 11-12, Raquel y Marisa - Agente del concesionario

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In previous lessons, we explored the use of verbs like deber (to have to, must), tener (to have), and haber (to have) to express duty, necessity, or obligation. These are additional examples of verbal periphrases that sometimes employ prepositions or pronouns such as de or que as a link and other times stand on their own. Plenty more examples of verbal periphrases can be found in the lessons Deber / Deber De + InfinitiveHaber + De + Infinitive: Something you should learn, and Imperative Constructions

 

To conclude, we'll leave you with one more example that utilizes the verb tener (to have), the preposition que, and the infinitive buscar (to look for):
 

Tenía que buscarme la vida, ¿sabes?

I had to make a living, you know?

Caption 56, 75 minutos - Gangas para ricos - Part 3

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That's all for today. Thank you for reading this lesson, and don't forget to send us your comments and suggestions

 

Combining Verbs in Spanish - Part 2

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Grammar Verbs

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