what in spanish

5 Simple Ways to Say “What” in Spanish

Knowing how to say “what” is an important part of any Spanish learner’s arsenal.

In this post, you will learn five ways to ask “what” in Spanish for different situations.

Additionally, you will understand the importance of each through sentences that place them firmly in real contexts.

For a fun twist, the example sentences all feature a well-loved topic: food. 


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 pronoun, 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 slightly different from the first one.

This time, qué functions as an adjective in the sentence. 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” is translated as 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 the 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!])

3. Cómo

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.

5. Cuál

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?

How to Practice Saying “What” in Spanish

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’s no tomorrow.

If you want to see more examples of qué and even learn how to ask your own questions in Spanish, there are lots of apps, resources and courses out there to get your Spanish conversation skills to the next level. 

With the FluentU program, you can spot all the different ways that native speakers use “what” as seen on Spanish media clips. From music videos to comedy sketches, all videos have interactive captions that link to a contextual dictionary, giving you example sentences, usage info and pronunciation for any word you click on.

After watching, you can review through personalized quizzes and practice further with flashcards to make the vocabulary stick. All features can be accessed on both web and mobile (iOS or Android). 


At this rate, you’ll be asking great questions in Spanish in no time.

¡Qué orgulloso estoy de ti! (I am so proud of you!)

Stay curious and, as always, happy learning!

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