16.1 Interrogative pronouns

Interrogative pronouns - what might that be. It sounds really something important and they are. Without them we couldn't ask What? Who? How? Where? Which? When? How much? Why? So, actually now you know - the interrogative pronouns are the words that form questions. Of course now could somebody say that a question is also - Is he in? Right. The interrogatives are the little words put in specify a question in some way.

When asking Is he in? It is probably meant is he in his room / office etc. at all. However, to ask When is he in? Or Where is he? etc. specifies the sentence into a direction. Anyway there are those ones in Spanish as well and in translation they are really easy.

They look pretty much the same like the relative pronouns but they have the accent.
Note: Whenever there is an accent the pronoun is a question (Let's admit it only helps when reading but at least something!).

Let's have a look at the complex system of interrogative pronouns. Their difficulty lies in the question when to use which one.

  persons things  adjectival  substantival  verb variab english
qué yes 1 yes yes 2 yes     What?
quién yes 3     yes   yes Who?, Whose
cuál yes yes yes yes 4   yes Which?
cómo         yes   How?
cuándo         yes   When?
cuántos     yes yes 4   yes How much? How many?
cuánto 5         yes   How much? How many?
por qué         yes   Why?

        yes   Where?


asks for things, reasons, characteristics of persons and things

Quién? asks for persons
Cuál? asks for something in a context
Cómo? asks for manner
Cuándo? asks for time span
Cuántos? asks for quantity
Cuánto? asks for quantity
Por qué? asks for reason
Dónde? asks for location

1) only in adjectival use

In connection with persons qué can only be used when asking for characteristics of persons, not for person him- / herself.

¿Qué hombre es aquel que nunca lee un libro?
= What man is this who never reads a book.

2) Quite often it happens that instead of which? is asked what? In Spanish this is usual too. But the meaning in Spanish changes and the meaning of the question is not clear anymore.

¿Qué río pasa por Berlín? = direct translation: What river passes through Berlin?
The Spanish question can express two different things:

1) Which river goes through London?
2) What kind of river?

The Spanish question does not give a clear indication whether the person wants to know the name or the characteristics of the river. Therefore it is better to be precise when asking.

¿Cuál rio pasa por Berlín? = Which river goes through Berlin?

That does not change the fact see chapter 16.3 that in adjectival use qué is preferred in Spain and cuál in Latin America when asking for a name.

When using qué in adjectivally the context gives the information whether it is asked for the name or for a member of a group.

The difference between qué (what) and cuál (which) is like in English. With what it is asked for a characteristic or a feature, with cuál it is asked for a member of a group.

Have a look at these sentences:

¿Qué hombre es? = What man is it? (asking for a characteristic or a feature of the man)
¿Cuál hombre es? = Which man is it? (asking for one man in a group of men)

3) Quién can't be used adjectival. It is always asking for a subject in a sentence.

Quien and cuál are changed according to the number of the subject / object that is asked for:

¿Quiénes son?
¿Quién es?
¿Cuáles hombres son?
¿Cuál hombre es?

cuál (which) and cuántos, cuántas (how much, how many) can be used substantival (as a noun) when the reference group is clear. That does apply to English as well.

¿Cuántos son? = How many are there? (How many what?? apples, trees, millions?)

¿A cuál miras? = Which one you look at? (Which one of what?)

In both cases the persons talking know clearly what is the reference group of the question.

The difference between quién, quiénes (who) and cuál, cuáles (which) is the same as in English. Who asks for a definite subject in a sentence, never for a reference group. Cuál always refers to a member of a group. Very clearly you can see this in the following sentences where cuál is used adjectivally.

Quién es? = Who is it? (no reference group)
Cuál es? = Which one is it? (reference group)

It has to be taken into account that there is a difference between cuánto, cuánta, cuántas, cuántos used adjectivally and the adverb cuánto. Adverbs are never changed according to gender or number. The adjectival use of cuánto, cuánta, cuántas, cuántos requires the change according to gender and number. Furthermore it has to be kept in mind that when using cuánto, cuánta, cuántas, cuántos adjectivally it has to be clear what the reference group of the context is.

changed according to gender and number, adjectival use
¿Cuánta madera se necesita para construir una casa?
= How much wood do you need to build a house?

¿Cuánto dinero gana? = How much money does he earn?
¿Cuántos libros leíste el año pasado? = How many books did you read last year?
¿Cuántas hojas tiene un árbol? = How many leafs has a tree?

changed according to gender and number, substantival use
¿Cuántos son? = How many are they?
¿Cuántas van a venir? = How many will come?

the adverb
¿Cuánto trabaja?
= How much does he work?
¿Cuánto come un elefante? = How much does an elephant eat?

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