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How formal is the Spanish word cuán? When is it appropriate to use, and when does it seem out of place? How are sentences using cuán normally expressed in informal speech?

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+1 Nice question! I wanted to know that myself (shame on me Spanish is my native language :$) –  César Jan 10 '12 at 14:45
    
I personally like 'cuán', but indeed it sounds a little sophisticated here (Argentina). –  leonbloy Jan 12 '12 at 19:20
    
Cuán follows the same path as whom in English... in 20 years rom now nobody will use it. –  pferor Feb 21 '12 at 19:08
    
Cuán indicates a quantity of something, tangible or intangible. –  dockeryz Apr 17 at 13:55

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

In Spain, cuán is rarely used in normal, informal speech, though I think it would generally be understood.

To express the same, you can use qué, or lo ... que:

¡Cuán rápidamente caminan las malas nuevas! = ¡Qué rápidamente caminan las malas nuevas!

No puedes imaginarte cuán desgraciado soy = No puedes imaginarte lo desgraciado que soy

In questions, in Spain, it is often replaced by cómo de:

¿Cuán grande es tu coche? = ¿Cómo de grande es tu coche?

But this usage is probably incorrect.

NOTE
Though the definition by RAE doesn't say anything about the use of cuan in questions, the DPD does.

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I strongly disagree with using it as Cómo de. I think it is incorrect. Do you have a source for it? Or are you a native spanish speaker so it may be a regionalism? :) Thanks! –  Joze Jan 10 '12 at 12:09
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No, I don't have any sources. I have always heard it as cuán, but it may well be incorrect. I'll edit my answer. –  MikMik Jan 10 '12 at 14:25
    
Thank you! I am not sure it is incorrect. It only sounds very bad. :) –  Joze Jan 11 '12 at 6:27
    
Cuán, as in the example of the coche, could be replaced with "¿Qué tan grande..." –  Alfredo Osorio Jan 11 '12 at 21:11
    
+1 "Cómo es de grande tu coche?" is accepted use in Argentina, actually the standard way; though it sounds slightly incorrect. –  leonbloy Jan 12 '12 at 19:18

"Cuan" may be an unusual word for American-Spanish talkers but in Spain is quite common, at least in the "quantitative meaning" in questions. Other uses are not very very frequent and, usually, "cuan" is substituted by other structures (not by other words).

Cuan has two meanings that depend on the context, one of them is almost lost in the language.

1.- Cuan (in direct or indirect questions or in exclamations it should be written as "cuán"): Its meaning is "how much" or "how many" and it is a short form for "cuanto" (or "cuánto" in questions and exclamations). It is used when the word is just before an adjetive or and adverb ("cuan largo es", "cuan lejos vives") and never when you are making a comparison. It is very unusual to find it out of exclamations or interrogations but in old literature, and can be substituted by "todo lo".

Example: "Corro cuan rápido puedo"-->"Corro todo lo rápido que puedo"

In exclamations, it is usually substituted by "qué" so you will not find it except in literature, especially in poetry.

Example: ¡Cuán bello es el amor!-->¡Qué bello es el amor!

In questions, is more frequent, although is not the most frequently used form to ask the size of something. In Spain, it is very common to use "cómo de", and, in Latinoamérica, "qué tan".

Example: ¿Cuán largo es el vestido? --> ¿Cómo de largo es el vestido?//¿Qué tan largo es el vestido?

2.- Its second meaning is equivalent to "as" and introduces the second part of a comparison (as...as...). It is extremely rare, at least in Spain and in Mexico (I do not know other regions regionalisms), even in the literature. Almost always it is substituted by "como".

Example: Tan alto cuan feo--> Tan alto como feo.

I hope I have helped, although it has been quite a long time since you asked the question. I apologize for my English.

Cuan: http://buscon.rae.es/dpd/srv/search?id=XzArprp97D66gn05Kb

Cuán: http://buscon.rae.es/dpd/srv/search?id=qsi2cT7VVD6TqNJhJC

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+1 for the mentioning the tan(to) ... cuan structure –  guifa Apr 16 at 21:30

In questions, "cuán" is equivalent to "qué tan":

¿Cuán rápido estamos caminando? = ¿Qué tan rápido estamos caminando?

¿Cuán bueno es ese restaurante? = ¿Qué tan bueno es ese restaurante?

¿Cuán lejos está la biblioteca? = ¿Qué tan lejos está la biblioteca?

In exclamations, "cuán" is equivalent to "qué":

¡Cuán rápido estamos caminando! = ¡Qué rápido estamos caminando!

¡Cuán bueno es ese restaurante! = ¡Qué bueno es ese restaurante!

¡Cuán lejos está la biblioteca! = ¡Qué lejos está la biblioteca!

"Cómo de" is a regionalism. I think outside of Spain it sounds very bad. In general, if you can use "qué", this will be the preferred form in the informal and formal speech. "Cuán" is more common in writing, especially in literature. I think using "cuán" is not formal; it's just not usual. My hypothesis is educated people use "cuán" more frequently, but it isn't related to a formality issue.

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In Spain qué tan sounds wrong :) As you say, here we use cómo de. Both expressions are correct, according to the DPD. –  Gorpik Apr 17 at 8:46

Although this isn't really what you were asking about, maybe it's worth mentioning that it would be somewhat out of place to use cuán when you're in Mexico, where it is far more common to say qué tan. For example,

¿Qué tan lejos está el Zócalo?

or

¿Qué tan grande es?

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