Interrogative Pronouns (Question Words)

Interrogative pronouns simply mean question words. Whether or not you realize it, a question word is actually a pronoun because it is used in place of the noun that would be the answer to the question.

Following is a complete list of question words. Notice that they all have accent marks.

Most of the question words have exact equivalents in Spanish and English. But there are a few issues you must understand in order to use the correct question word in context. There are three Spanish interrogative pronouns that can be translated to the English word what: qué, cuál, and cómo. Unfortunately, they are not just interchangeable, but there are some simple rules to govern their usage.

  • What rule 1: Always use qué to mean what directly in front of any noun.

               ¿Qué libro lee usted?
               What book do you read?

               ¿Qué comida comen ellos?
               What food do they eat?

  • What rule 2: Qué is used in front of any form of the verb ser when asking for a definition or an explanation. That is, when you're really asking “What does it mean?” or “What is it?”

  • What rule 3: Cuál is used in front of any form of the verb ser when you're asking for a choice or specific answer. For example, consider the difference between the following two answers to a question about your address. The sample questions that generate them use the es form, which means is, of the verb ser.

A: My address is the house number, the street name, city, state, and zip code where I live.

B: My address is 555 Kingston Lane, Carrollton, Ohio 44615.

Answer A is obviously the response to a question asking for a definition or explanation of the word “address.” This is the type of answer elicited from the following question:

        ¿Qué es dirección?
        What is “your address?” (give me an explanation or definition of address)

Answer B is clearly the type of response to the question, “What is your address?” Any question asking for a specific response, as in the following example, requires the question word “ cuál.”

         ¿Cuál es tu dirección?
         What is your address? (give me a specific place)

  • What rule 4: Cómo is often used as a response when someone fails to hear a comment and would like it repeated. In English when someone says something you don't hear, you say, “What?” If this happens in Spanish, the one word response, “¿ Cómo?” is appropriate. That does not, however, mean that cómo can be used to mean “What?” in any other situation.

The importance of knowing how to ask a question is obvious, but a large number of people tend to mix up the question words or simply can't remember them. Try to use mnemonic (memory) tricks to help you remember the question words. The following examples are silly, and therein lies their beauty. Although they won't elicit the exact question word, they will certainly jar your memory. You should try to think of your own mnemonic devices for the rest of the question words.

       How did he get into a coma?
       Cómo = how

       Who dates Barbie? Ken!
       Quién = who

       What do they sell at K‐mart?
       Qué = what

       When can I buy a condo?
        Cuándo = when

Most questions that have a question word are created exactly like a yes or no question with the question word in front. Take the question “Does he speak Italian?” ¿Habla él italiano? There are several question words that could be placed in front of the question to elicit more information than a yes or no answer. The following examples show how different question words can elicit different answers:

         ¿Cómo está tu familia?
          
How is your family?

         ¿Dónde habla él italiano?
          Where does he speak Italian?

          ¿Cuándo habla él italiano?
          
When does he speak Italian?

         ¿Por qué habla él italiano?
         Why does he speak Italian?

All of the sample questions can be created simply by switching the subject and the verb to create a yes or no question and then placing the specific question word in front.