This section explores the related functions of asking questions and pointing to or identifying things, e.g. what’s that? Is there a…? How much does it cost? What does this do?
In spoken Spanish, questions are expressed not so much in the order of words, but in the inflection, i.e. where the words are stressed and where the tone of voice is changed. So when asking a question, the Spanish speaker will generally use the same form of words as a statement, but change the inflection towards the end of the sentence. When this is written the inflection isn’t shown but an inverted question-mark at the start of the phrase indicates that it is a question:
So, ‘You live in Spain’ is Vives en España, but ¿Vives en España? translates as ‘Do you live in Spain?’ and the inflection is raised on the underlined words, as shown below, depending on the focus of the question:
¿Vives en España? – Do you live in Spain?
Similarly, expressing that ‘there is…’ uses the single word hay (pronounced rather like I in English), and conveniently the same word is used for ‘there are’. So, if you wish to ask the question ‘Is there?’ or ‘Are there?’ you’d express this using the same inflection when spoken, and the same question mark before as well as after when written. So ¿Hay… ? is used both in the question and the response or statement as below:
¿Hay una programa de turismo a la universidad?
Is there a tourism course at the university?
Hay una programa de turismo a la universidad.
There is a tourism course at the university.
In the past tense, ‘there was/were’ is había for situations extending over a period of time, or when there ‘used to be’. The same word is used for a question: ¿Había ...? Did there used to be …?
Where ‘there was/were’ relates to a defined, relatively short time period, e.g. on an occasion , hubo is used. For example ¿Hubo mucha gente aquí el viernes pasado? – Were there many people here last Friday?
Question words – what, which, who(m), whose…
These are the words we use to form a question, indicating the thing or person we’re asking about, in place of a noun. In English we use ‘what’, ‘which’ and ‘who’, and in more formal contexts perhaps ‘whom’.
What – ¿Qué? When in English you’d use ‘what’, ¿qué? is the go-to word, although cual can be used when there’s a wide choice, and ¿qué? can replace cual if the choice is between only two!
Note the accent on the é , distinguishing qué from the conjunction que, ‘that’.
Who(m) ¿Quién …? ¿Quiénes…? Spanish uses the same word for ‘who’ (e.g. who is…?) and ‘whom’ (e.g. to / from/ of whom?), and only for people. In reality in English we don’t often use ‘whom ‘ anyway and it seems an endangered species!
So ‘Who is your boss?’ would be ¿Quién es tu jefe?, while ‘To whom are you going to give the job / Who are you going to give the job to?’ would be ¿A quién vas a dar el trabajo?
Which – ¿Cuál…? ¿Cuáles…? These are used when asking about a choice between options, e.g. ¿Cuál deporte prefieres? – ‘Which sport do you prefer?’ ¿Cuáles…? is the plural equivalent when multiple things are to be chosen. ¿Cual es…? has the further advantage of being a little easier to say than ¿Qué es …?
Whose…? ¿Cuyo …? Cuyo can be used for people or things and needs to agree in gender and number with the noun that follows it, i.e. cuyo, cuya, cuyos, or cuyas.
For example La niña cuyo trabajo he corregido – the girl whose work I have marked/corrected.
Questioning adverbs – how, why, where, when
Adverbs allow you to ask for detail about actions, like ‘why is..?’, ‘how does…?’, ‘where are…?’. So they allow you to show an interest or get more information, and are important for more flowing, purposeful conversation rather than just to obtain facts.
Why – ¿Por qué? Literally translating as ‘for what (reason)’, this sounds exactly like porque (because), so noticing/using intonation for a question is important.
How – ¿Cómo? This is widely used in Spanish greetings and questions: ¿Cómo esta (usted)? (How are you?) ; ¿Cómo va? (How’s it going?) ; ¿Cómo? (I beg your pardon?/what?) to get someone to repeat what they’ve said; ¿Cómo viajas a Madrid? (How are you travelling to Madrid?).
Where – ¿Donde? ¿Adónde? Donde is used to ask/talk about where something is – its location, whereas adónde is used for movement, so ‘Where are you going? is ¿Adónde vas?, but ¿Donde vives? translates as ‘Where do you live?’
Because – Porque This is included here because it’s the standard response to ‘why…?’ questions or explanations of ‘why’. Note the absence of an accent on the e.
How much – ¿Cuánto? Cuánto is used for both ‘how much’ and ‘how many’, so used with countable and uncountable nouns as well as asking about price or distance : ¿Cuánto cuesta? – How much does it cost? / How much is it? ;¿Cuánto lejos ? How far? ¿Cuántos años? How many years?
When – ¿Cuando? At last a fairly simple question word – when, or cuando. As long as you don’t confuse it with cuanto it’s a useful and straightforward question, e.g. ¿Cuando viajamos? – when are we travelling?
Relative pronouns in answers to questions
Each of the above is an ‘interrogative pronoun’, i.e. a pronoun used as part of question. In English we tend to use the same words as ‘relative pronouns’ : ‘that’ (in place of ‘what’), ‘which’, ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘who’/’whom’. In Spanish there are some differences, especially a lack of accents when these are used as relative pronouns, apart from cómo and por qué. Also, unlike in English they must be included, i.e you can’t say in Spanish ‘The subject I studied’, you must include ‘that’ (que):
La asignatura que yo estudiaba. The subject that I studied’ [note no accent on the e in que]
Some more examples:
Digame cómo hacerlo por favor. – Please tell me how to do it.
La jefa me ha explicado por qué es necesario. – The boss (female) has explained to me why it’s necessary.
Maria es la jugadora quien juga el más. – Maria is the player who plays the most. (note no accent on the e in quien)
El profesor explica a las estudiantes donde está la biblioteca. – The teacher explains to the students where the library is.
Sí, yo se adonde vamos y cuando vamos a llegar. – Yes, I know where we’re going, and when we are going to arrive. [note no accent on the o in adonde or the a in cuando]