My Spanish textbook it has the following examples:

  • Qué = “What” (at the start of a sentence)
  • lo que = “what” (in the middle of a sentence)
  • Que = that (can also mean which, who, what depending on context).

It then gives this example:

I understand what you mean
Entiendo qué quiere decir.

How does qué work in this sentence? By the examples given above, shouldn’t it be ‘lo que`?

  • Yes, you can perfectly say entiendo lo que quiere decir in Spanish. – Charlie Oct 1 '16 at 18:02
  • @CarlosAlejo Does using lo que over que change the meaning at all? Thanks! – big_smile Oct 1 '16 at 18:05
  • The sole difference between entiendo qué quiere decir and entiendo lo que quiere decir is purely grammatical. The meaning is the same. – Charlie Oct 1 '16 at 18:18

Yes, by the quick and simple explanation that your textbook gives you, it should be "lo que". But that quick and simple explanation is not accurate, as you can perfectly have "qué" in the middle of a sentence, besides "lo que" at the beginning of one as well:

Lo que te quería decir es... que ya no te amo.
What I wanted to tell you is... that I don't love you anymore.

Furthermore, I find it curious that your textbook says "que" alone (without a preceding "lo") can be translated as "what". I can't think of an example where that happens.

In my opinion, a better quick-n'-dirty list of equivalencies would be:

qué = what (for what traditional grammar calls "direct and indirect questions")

¿Qué quieres hacer? / What do you want to do?
Dime qué quieres hacer. / Tell me what you want to do.

que = 1. that (introducing subordinate clauses: "he said that she'd do it", "I recommend that he go to that place"); 2. that (in the construction equivalent to "so...that"); 3. than (in comparisons); 4. (introduces a reason, often left untranslated in English)

Él dijo que ella lo haría. / He said that she'd do it. (1)
Recomiendo que vaya a ese lugar. / I recommend that he go to that place. (1)
Iba tan rápido que se tropezó y se cayó. / He was going so fast that he tripped and fell down. (2)
Soy más alto que mi esposa. / I'm taller than my wife. (3)
Ven aquí, que te voy a dar un abrazo. / Come here; I'm gonna give you a hug. (4)

lo que = what (headless relative clauses)

lo que quiero para Navidad / what I want for Christmas
lo que me enojó / what made me angry

For a full list of all 16 uses of "qué/que", visit the DRAE on the RAE's website.

And finally, as for why you can say "qué" as well as "lo que" in this case, as Carlos Alejo says in a comment above, I suppose it's just a characteristic particular to the mental verbs "entender" 'to understand' and "pensar en" 'to think of'.

Entiendo lo que escribió. Entiendo qué escribió. / I understand what she wrote.
Pienso en lo que nos depara el futuro. Pienso en qué nos depara el futuro. / I'm thinking of what the future holds for us.

"Qué" and "lo que" are in fact not usually interchangeable: (** means practically nobody says this)

Quiero lo que veo. **Quiero qué veo. / I want what I see.
Dame lo que quieras. **Dame qué quieras. / Give me what[ever] you want [to give me.]

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Qué is an interrogative or exclamative pronoun, the same as what. It is easy in sentences such as:

¿Qué quieres decir?
What do you mean?

¡Qué tontería!
What nonsense!

But also in complex statements that are not actually questions, there can be an interrogative pronoun:

No sé qué quieres decir.
I do not know what you mean.

Que can be several different things... but basically these two:

  1. A relative pronoun, usually with an article. It is moved before the verb it complements:

No sé lo que dices.
I do not know the thing that you say.

If it refers to a person or animal (or even a thing) it will use el que or la que depending on the gender. If it refers to a gramatical entity (as the example above) or an unknown thing it will use lo que.

Although the meaning is the same as above, I translated the English differently to illustrate the different grammar.

No conozco a la persona de la que hablas.
I do not know the person you are talking about.

  1. A conjunction: connects two sentences into a complex one, with a lot of different meanings, (sometimes that, sometimes a preposition).

Quiero que duermas.
I want you to sleep.

Creo que me voy a ir a casa.
I think that I am going to go home.

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