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The following sentences seem to contradict what I have learned thus far about qué and cuál.

A) Taken from - onetoonespanish

¿Qué es más caro, la carne o el pescado? What's more expensive, meat or fish?

I have read that cuál followed by ser ask for a definition, so to me this is like asking to define "más caro, la carne o el pescado" rather than expecting a choice

B) Source - Butterfly spanish

¿Cuál vestido quieres?

I have read that cuál is never followed by a noun, hence you may have

¿Cuál es tu película favorita?

but

¿Qué película te gusta más?

However ¿cuál vestido quieres? seems ok as it is a specific form of the more general ¿Qué vestido quieres?

C) Source - onetoonespanish

¿Qué prefieres, la carne o el pescado? What do you prefer; meat or fish?

Isn't this asking for a selection between la carne o el pescado so why qué.

  • You wrote, "I have read that cuál never follows a noun," so you concluded that ¿Cuál película te gusta más? doesn't work. But I think you've misunderstood the word "follow." Example: B follows A in the alphabet. That means B comes after A. – aparente001 Dec 2 '17 at 2:52
  • Also, I wonder if there's a typo in this sentence: "However ¿cuál vestido quieres? seems ok as it is a specific form of the more general ¿cuál vestido quieres?". – aparente001 Dec 2 '17 at 2:53
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    Ah, thanks, I can understand what you're asking much better now. Hmm. I don't know what the rules are but I will share what I've figured out on my own. (English was my first language but for some time Spanish was my dominant language.) First, cuál is often more polite and formal then qué. Second, ¿Qué es ... is less mellifluous than ¿Cuál es .... Finally, since prices vary frequently, I wouldn't use ser with price comparisons, I'd use estar: ¿Cuál está más caro ahora, el pescado o la carne de res? // I think it would be helpful ... – aparente001 Dec 2 '17 at 3:08
  • ... in general if you could cite where you saw a certain rule such as "I have read that cuál is never followed by a noun." – aparente001 Dec 2 '17 at 3:08
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It seems to me your online sources are a bit too strict as well as occasionally actually wrong. Qué and cuál do have different uses, but they're not always mutually exclusive.

When there are explicit alternatives to choose from, it is common to use cuál (or cuáles). For example, suppose you're asking a girl to choose between two dresses, one red, the other green:

¿Cuál es más bonito, el rojo o el verde?

But you can use qué to ask about alternatives if there is no previous context, as could be the case in your first example:

¿Qué es más caro, la carne o el pescado?

There's a slight complication here, though: with qué you need not take the gender and number of the alternatives into account, while you do if you use cuál(es).

About cuál + noun, as in your second example, it is perfectly grammatical. As above, it sounds more correct if there are explicit alternatives. For example, you're standing before a shop window and you ask your little girl:

¿Cuál vestido quieres?

If there is no previous context, for example, you're talking about dresses but not about particular colors or models, you can use qué instead, although in this case it would sound more natural to ask something like

¿Qué clase de vestido quieres?

With or without that clase de, what this question means is "what would a dress you like be like?", that is, as you said, a definition.

You use cuál when you ask about a definite item, even if you do not provide explicit alternatives, as in for example these typical phrases:

¿Cuál es tu película favorita?
¿Cuál es tu color preferido?
¿Cuál es la comida que más te gusta?

You can however turn these around and ask (a bit less naturally):

¿Qué película es tu favorita?
¿Qué color es tu preferido?
¿Qué comida es la que más te gusta?

As for your last example,

¿Qué prefieres, la carne o el pescado?

This is basically the same situation as in ¿Qué/Cuál vestido quieres?: you should use qué if there's no context (for example, you're simply discussing food tastes and preferences with a friend), and cuál if there's an actual opportunity to choose (you're holding some meat in one plate and some fish in another one and you need to your friend to decide which one she wants to eat).

I would say you don't need to study a lot of rules, but pay attention to fixed phrases and typical situations when you use one word or the other. As you see, qué and cuál are often both right and their meaning is also very similar. There are only a few situations (as in ¿Cuál es tu color preferido?, etc.) when you must absolutely use one and not the other.

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  • For a long time it seemed odd to me that cuál would be used for names. But if we think of a name being one of many possible, but known, options it makes a lot of sense. – aris Dec 2 '17 at 18:13

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