I'm confused by a couple things in this question I came across:

¿Qué libro quería ver la mujer?

In the video I'm watching, the translation is

What book does the woman want to see?

But the word "quería" means "wanted".

My first question is: How is the word "quería" actually being used here?

Also, the word order here is a little confusing. Obviously, the book doesn't want to see the woman but that is kind of the way it is written. Is the word order here just assuming we're going to use common sense and know that it is the woman looking for a book? What if the question was "Qué hombre quería ver la mujer?" That becomes a little more confusing.


2 Answers 2


That question could only refer to the present if instead of "la mujer" we had a vocative noun indicating respect, such as "la señora" or "la señorita", accompanied by a third person singular verb:

  • ¿Qué libro quería ver la señora? (What book would you like to see, Madam?)

The imperfect past can in fact be used as a polite variant of the present in questions and requests, just as in English:

  • Quería saber el precio de esta camisa. (I wanted to know how much this shirt is.)

  • ¿Qué quería comprar? (What is it that you wanted to buy?)

As regards word order, that implausible interpretation (of the book wanting to see the woman) would only be possible if the personal direct object were preceded -- as stated by the pertinent grammar rule -- by the preposition "a":

  • ¿Qué libro quería ver a la mujer? (only possible if the book were personified)

The front position of the direct object in questions is as usual as in English, the only difference being that the subject will most likely appear after the verb (in English, it will appear after the auxiliary):

  • ¿Qué libro quería ver la mujer?
  • What book did the woman want to see?


  • ¿Qué hombre quería ver a la mujer? means: What man wanted to see the woman?, while

  • ¿Qué hombre quería ver la mujer? means: What man did the woman want to see?


I'm not sure I have new information that Gustavson's excellent answer didn't have, but I want to present my answer in a slightly different way.

  1. ¿Qué libro quería ver la mujer?

    As Gustavson pointed out, there's a way of softening things in Spanish, where you put the verb in the imperfect past instead of the present tense. This is pretty common in Spanish, and it's a great example of the subtleties that can make a foreigner come across as brash or pushy.

    But with teaching materials that haven't been thoroughly reviewed before publication, there's always a certain risk of mistakes. If the video series has other mistakes, you could feel pretty sure this is a mistake. However, I can imagine a scenario where this imperfect past tense would make sense, so let's think about it:

    Bookstore clerk A to bookstore clerk B: "¿Qué libro quería ver la mujer?" (Clerk A noticed that the customer asked Clerk B a question and wanted to get the specifics. The softened version has extended from the direct dialogue out into the conversation about the original dialogue.)

    But it's weird to call this customer "la mujer." It would be more natural to call her "la señora" or "la joven" or "la muchacha" (depending on age), or "la cliente." Also, the English translation could convey the softening with "What book would the customer like?" or "What book was [or is] the customer asking about?" Finally, the sentence seems a bit contrived.

    "Ver" is a weird verb to use here. Better would be pedir, comprar, or buscar. All these considerations push me towards wondering how good the series is.

  2. Word order

    Yes, common sense, intonation and context will help you tell the difference between statements and questions. Additionally: if the object is a person, there will be a special preposition in front: a. Here's an example with an animal, without the special preposition:

    ¿Cuál flor va a visitar la abeja luego? | Which flower is the bee going to visit next?

    (I'm imagining a scene where two scientists are watching a slow motion video of an experiment where a bee is foraging in a clover patch.)

    You use what you know about bees and flowers to identify the subject and the object. Compare with:

    ¿Cuál abeja va a visitar las flores marchitadas? | Which bee is going to visit the wilted flowers?

  3. All this ambiguity shows why people often use "Cuál" instead of "Qué" in their questions. It reduces the general level of ambiguity for the listener. For example, let's say A was mumbling and B asks for clarification. Compare these two cases:

    First situation:

    ¿Quieres té de limón ó té de manzanilla?

    Limón, por favor.

    ¿Cuál quieres, perdón?

    Second situation:

    ¿Quieres té de limón?

    No, gracias, ¿me das una limonada por favor, tengo calor.

    ¿Qué quieres, perdón?

    If you're shooting in the dark, use "Qué"; if there's a finite list to choose from, use "Cuál."

This is another consideration that makes the video a bit suspect.

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