Here is an important recipe for you.
You will need five farm-fresh vocabulary words, a dash of determination and a heaping spoonful of curiosity.
What’s cooking? Your Spanish skills!
In today’s post, we are sharing the recipe for asking “what” in Spanish.
Asking questions is how we learn, so knowing how to say “what” is an important part of any language-learner’s arsenal!
To illustrate the use of this all-important word, we will be taking a trip with our example sentences through the Spanish culinary world.
In this post, you will learn five ways to ask “what” in Spanish for different situations and you will understand the importance of knowing them through sentences that place them firmly in the realm of the real world.
Are you getting hungry yet? First, let’s pre-heat the oven with some information on the nature and importance of saying “what” in Spanish!
The Importance of Knowing How to Say “What” in Spanish
Sometimes, you think you know how to translate an English word into Spanish. But all of a sudden, you freeze up when you see that it actually translates differently.
Take the word banco as an example. It is a pretty decent cognate! Banco means “bank.” Lit!
Then you see the sentences:
Los bancos de ese parque están sucios. (The benches in that park are dirty.)
¡Mira ese enorme banco de peces! (Look at that huge school of fish!)
Neither one of these is about banks! You cannot help but exclaim, “Say what!? Banco can also mean “bench” and “school of fish”? Please, stop the world, I want off this ride!”
Yes, it can be frustrating, but polysemy is part of every language. It is a natural thing we live with every single day.
One of the best examples of an English word having different meanings in Spanish is the word “what.”
Although the five main meanings of “what” in Spanish are, as you will see below, quite similar to each other, they are still different enough to warrant a closer look. And you should know when to use each of them if you want your Spanish to be correct.
People can argue about the importance of different words and whether they are necessary for our everyday conversations. I doubt a lot of Spanish people use banco with the meaning of “school of fish” every day of their lives unless they are fishermen.
“What,” on the other hand, is a pretty basic word we use dozens of times every day for several different reasons and purposes, and I do not think there is a single good language teacher out there who would tell you it is not worth learning!
How else would you be able to ask:
What’s your name? (¿Cómo te llamas?)
What’s that? (¿Qué es eso?)
What do you want? (¿Qué quieres?)
And many other integral questions for learning!
In the next section, you will learn about the different ways to ask “what” in Spanish and when you should use each of them. Just for fun, I will only use examples related to food because food is a topic we speak about on a daily basis so it provides great real-world context.
And because I am crazy hungry right now.
Do you think you have what it takes to create your own examples on a totally different topic?
What’s Cooking? Say “What” in Spanish with a Culinary Twist!
Depending on what the sentence is expressing, the position of “what” in the sentence and even its function, there are five different ways to express this important word.
To hear all these words in action, check out FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
The immersive, entertaining content makes grammar and vocabulary much more memorable—so you’ll know what’s what!
Let’s have a look at each way to say “what” in Spanish one by one:
1. Qué (as a pronoun)
“What” can be translated as two different versions of the word qué, one as a pronoun and one as an adjective.
When qué is followed by a verb, it functions as a pronoun.
As an interrogative word, qué will always have an accent mark whatever its position in the sentence is. However, you will normally find it at the beginning:
¿Qué quiere comer tu novio? (What does your boyfriend want to eat?)
¿Qué necesitas para preparar la pizza? (What do you need to prepare the pizza?)
¿Qué has desayunado hoy? (What have you eaten for breakfast today?)
Even though the last three examples were all direct questions, this will not always be the case. Qué can also appear as an interrogative pronoun in indirect questions:
Necesito saber qué vas a comer. (I need to know what you’re going to eat.)
Dime qué pediste en el restaurante. (Tell me what you ordered at the restaurant.)
No sé qué puedo añadirle al batido. (I don’t know what I can add to the milkshake.)
Finally, you will also find the interrogative pronoun qué in reported speech sentences. Although there are lots of reporting verbs, the most frequently used in front of qué are preguntar (to ask), preguntarse (to wonder), querer saber (to want to know) and necesitar saber (to need to know):
Me preguntó qué estaba comiendo. (He asked me what I was eating.)
Se preguntaba qué podía usar en lugar de azúcar. (She wondered what she could use instead of sugar.)
Mi madre quería saber qué había cenado. (My mom wanted to know what I had for dinner.)
Necesitaba saber qué iba a cocinar. (She needed to know what I was going to cook.)
2. Qué (as an adjective)
The second meaning of “what” in Spanish (qué) may seem like it is the same word as in point number one. However, it is actually a different one!
This time, qué functions as an adjective in the sentence, and for that reason it will not be followed by a verb, but by a noun.
If you are not really into learning grammar and just need to learn conversational Spanish, you can ignore this fact and just remember that “what” means qué most of the time, but I do believe it is a good thing to know these little interesting facts about the language you are studying.
Whatever your situation may be, just know that qué can also be followed by nouns:
¿Qué fruta es tu favorita? (What’s your favorite fruit?)
¿Qué desayuno es ese? (What kind of breakfast is that?)
¿Qué sopa es mejor para el dolor de estómago? (What soup is the best for a stomachache?)
As with the previous qué, adjectival qué can also appear in indirect questions and indirect speech:
Necesitamos saber qué fruta es tu favorita. (We need to know what your favorite fruit is.)
Me preguntó qué desayuno era ese. (She asked me what kind of breakfast it was.)
No sabía qué sopa era la mejor para el dolor de estómago. (He didn’t know what the best soup for a stomachache was.)
Finally, you can also find adjectival qué as an exclamatory adjective. Remember to add the opening exclamation mark (¡) every time you use the closing one:
¡Qué alegría comer pizza! (I’m so happy to eat pizza! [Lit.: What happiness to eat pizza!])
¡Qué cosas tan deliciosas cocinas! (You cook such delicious food! [Lit.: What things so delicious you cook!])
¡Qué tomate más delicioso! (What a delicious tomato! [Lit.: What tomato more/so delicious!])
Cómo means “what” only in very specific situations, so pay attention now.
Use cómo with the meaning of “what” when you are expressing your incredulity and/or annoyance for what has happened or what someone has said.
¡Cómo! ¡Eso no puede ser verdad! ¡Él no sabe cocinar! (What! That can’t be true! He doesn’t know how to cook!)
¿Cómo? ¡No me lo puedo creer! ¿Ana ha hecho el pastel? (What? I can’t believe it! Ana has baked the cake?)
In every other case, cómo will mean “how.” Here are some examples:
¿Cómo se usan los palillos? (How are chopsticks used?)
¿Cómo cocinaste el pollo? (How did you cook the chicken?)
4. Lo que
If we translate lo que literally, its meaning would be “that which.”
However, this makes the English translation sound a little bit awkward:
Lo que más me gusta es comer pasta. (That which I like the most is eating pasta.)
No sé lo que vamos a almorzar. (I don’t know that which we will have for lunch.)
Come lo que quieras. (Eat that which you want.)
But if we substitute “that which” for “what” in these sentences, they sound much more natural. Have a look:
Lo que más me gusta es comer pasta. (What I like the most is eating pasta.)
No sé lo que vamos a almorzar. (I don’t know what we’ll have for lunch.)
Come lo que quieras. (Eat what you want.)
From this, we can conclude that lo que is better translated as “what.”
Have a look at the examples again and you will notice this que does not have an accent mark. It is very important that you remember this. Lo qué is a vulgarism used instead of the interrogative pronoun qué, and you should definitely avoid it like the plague.
The last meaning of “what” in Spanish is cuál, which is also an interrogative word that can be a pronoun or an adjective depending on whether it is followed by a verb or a noun.
You may be wondering then, what is the difference between using qué and cuál? And the answer is quite simple.
Use cuál when you have to make a choice between two or three things. There can be more than three, but the number will normally be small and limited/defined. Most of the time, you can substitute “what” for “which” and the meaning will be unchanged:
¿Cuál vino prefieres? (What wine [of the ones I’m showing you] do you prefer?)
¿Cuál pastel te gusta más? (What cake [of the ones you are eating] do you like the most?)
On the other hand, opt for qué when the choice is not limited to a few specific items, but to a whole category. You will understand this better with a couple of examples:
¿Qué vino prefieres? (What wine [of all the wines in the wine category existing in the world] do you prefer?)
¿Qué pastel te gusta más? (What cake [of all the cakes in the cake category existing in the world] do you like the most?)
Use this rule of thumb and you never, ever get a single qué/cuál mistake.
So… ¿qué pastel prefieres and cuál pastel prefieres?
And that’s all for today, folks!
Learning the meaning of “what” in Spanish is an easy task even beginner learners can do. I hope this post has been useful and you are ready to rock your Spanish qué like there is no tomorrow.
¡Qué orgulloso estoy de ti! (I am so proud of you!)
Stay curious and, as always, happy learning!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.