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English

Often "qué" is translated to English as "what" and "cuál" is translated as "which." However, I know that this is not always the case. Here are some examples. (Please correct me if I am wrong.)

  • "Which book do you prefer?" / "¿Qué libro prefieres?"
  • "What is your favorite color?" / "¿Cuál es tu color favorito?" ("Qué" cannot be used here.)

Are there any principles that I could follow to determine when to use "qué" and when to use "cuál"?


Español

A menudo "qué" se traduce al inglés como "what" y "cuál" se traduce como "which". Sin embargo, sé que esto no siempre es el caso. Aquí hay algunos ejemplos. (Por favor, corregidme si estoy equivocado).

  • "Which book do you prefer?" / "¿Qué libro prefieres?"
  • "What is your favorite color?" / "¿Cuál es tu color favorito?" ("Qué" no se puede usar aquí.)

¿Hay algún principio que pueda seguir para determinar cuándo usar "qué" y cuando usar "cuál"?

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Actually, "¿Cuál libro prefieres?" would be ok too –  jmfsg Nov 15 '11 at 21:17
    
Thanks! I removed the incorrect statement in my question. –  Alan C Nov 15 '11 at 21:21
    
Isn't the basic guideline whether or not there are a finite number of choices? E.g. cuál is used when there is a group of things to choose from, such as colors –  Bryan Denny Nov 15 '11 at 21:26
    
"cual es tu color favorito?" could be translated into "witch one is your favorite color?" –  pleasedontbelong Nov 15 '11 at 21:48
    
@pleasedontbelong, I think that is a good point, but in English, "Which one is your favorite color" is generally used only when there are certain colors in mind. (Or at least, this is how it feels to me.) For example, "Among red, green, and blue, which one is your favorite color?" –  Alan C Nov 15 '11 at 21:52

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

English

The difference is not very clear and borders on the idiomatic, but I'd say that cuál implies that there is a known set of options from which to choose, while qué is more general. So ¿Cuál libro prefieres? implies that there are a couple of books in front of you and you need to choose from those.


Español

La diferencia no está muy clara y ronda en lo idiomático, pero diría que "cuál" implica que hay un conjunto conocido de opciones de entre los que elegir, mientras que "qué" es más general. Entonces, "¿cuál libro prefieres?" implica que hay un par de libros delane de ti y necesitas escoger entre ellos.

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As I understand, que is used commonly for definition, where cual refers to selecting or identifying.

¿Qué es el mate? Es una infusion que se bebe en Uruguay, en Paraguay y en Argentina.

¿Cuál es la moneda de México? El peso mexicano.

¿Qué es una galaxia? Un immenso conjunto de estrellas, gas, y polvo.

¿Cuál es la galaxia más cercana a la Vía Lactea? Andrómeda.

Is is not always so clear cut though it seems. My spanish notes refer to a mode of use 'Que + Noun' when referring to objects or things, with using Cual to omit the noun:

¿Qué biquini compro para Pedro?

No sé. ¿Cuál es el más barato?

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When it precedes a noun, the rule is simple: use "qué". "Cuál" is traditionally considered incorrect (though apparently common nonetheless) in this case.

Otherwise, it's probably being followed by a form of "ser". In this case, you want "cuál" unless you are seeking a definition.

  • "¿Qué es el color?" — "What is color?" (i.e., what sort of thing is color?)
  • "¿Cuál es el color?" — "What color is it?"

  • "¿Qué es un número de teléfono?" — What's a phone number?

  • "¿Cuál es tu número de teléfono?" — What's your phone number?
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The word que means what, but can also be interposed for which. The first example could easily be expressed as: "de cual libro preferes?" "De que color es su carro?" So both words can be interposed but with delicacy though.

You would though have to examine the subject of the sentence to decide. However generally speaking, Que means what and Cuál means which so you do have to be careful of the sentence structure as the adjective comes before the subject in Spanish as opposed to the opposite in sentence structure in English where the noun precedes the adjective, verb, or adverb.

Sentence structure in Spanish generally is inverse to English so you first have to determine the nature of both the object and the subject of the sentence conjunctively in order to facilitate proper placement of complementary words which must be placed first in Spanish in order to either provide direction, or description. So, have at it and don't forget to think it out, before you whip it out.

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