Understanding Spanish Interrogatives

Questions are a great part of languages. They can make you think, they can spark a conversation, and they can even help you let someone know you care. So, here's a good question: How do interrogatives work in Spanish? The answer to that question, fortunately, is not too complicated. Let's start answering it by looking at the different types of questions.

understanding spanish interrogatives understanding spanish interrogatives
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Yes or No Questions

These are the questions that will get you the simpler answers (yes, no, or I don't know). Accordingly, they are also the easiest questions to form.

To ask a yes or no question in Spanish, you simply put question marks around a normal sentence. It's that easy!

Take a look at some examples:

  • Juan habla inglés (Juan speaks English) → ¿Juan habla inglés? (Does Juan speak English?)
  • La casa es grande (The house is big) → ¿La casa es grande? (Is the house big?)
  • Rosario toma café (Rosario drinks coffee) → ¿Rosario toma café? (Does Rosario drink coffee?)

All these questions follow the traditional subject-verb-object order of Spanish (which happens to be the same order used in most English phrases). That said, it is possible to alter that order. The following questions are all correct and ask the same thing:

  • ¿Rosario toma café?
  • ¿Toma café, Rosario?
  • ¿Café toma, Rosario?

In spoken Spanish, you can differentiate yes or no question from regular sentences by their rising intonation. This means that the pitch of your voice rises as you finish the question.

Open Questions and Spanish Question Words

Open questions are the ones that will get you detailed answers. In English, they are often known as Wh- questions, since they are often headed by question words such as "why" or "what". They don't have such a catchy name in Spanish, but they are also headed by a question word.

Here are the most common question words in Spanish:

Qué

What

Quién

Who

Cuándo

When

Dónde

Where

Cuál

Which

Por qué

Why

Cómo

How

Cuánto

How many

Although they don't affect the pronunciation, the accent marks in these question words are particularly important, since they are what sets them apart from relative pronouns, so don't forget to include them!

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There are a few differences between English and Spanish question words. To start with, some Spanish question words can vary according to the number and gender of the person or thing they are referring to:

  • Quién changes to Quiénes when it is plural
  • Cuál changes to Cuáles when it is plural
  • Cuánto has a feminine form, Cuánta, and both the masculine and the feminine forms add an "s" at the end to mark the plural (Cuántos and Cuántas)

When a preposition is needed, it is always added before the pronoun:

  • ¿En qué oficina trabajas? (In what office do you work?)
  • ¿Con quién vas al teatro? (With whom do you go to the theater?)
  • ¿De dónde eres? (From where are you?)

These combinations of preposition + question word are called question phrases. Some question words can also form question phrases with nouns:

  • ¿Qué auto es tuyo? (What car is yours)
  • ¿Cuántos años tienes? (How old are you? Literally, how many years do you have?)

Unlike yes or no questions, open questions do sometimes require an inversion in their word order. The question word or phrase is always followed by the verb. When the subject is not represented by the question word, it is added right after the verb.
Here are some more examples where you can see this in action:

  • ¿Qué quieres estudiar? (What do you want to study?)
  • ¿Quién es tu profesor? (Who is your teacher?)
  • ¿Cuándo es tu cumpleaños? (When is your birthday?)
  • ¿Dónde vive Juan? (Where does Juan live?)
  • ¿Cuál es tu libro favorito? (Which is your favorite book?)
  • ¿Por qué estudias español? (Why do you study Spanish?)
  • ¿Cómo aprendiste inglés? (How did you learn English?)
  • ¿Cuántos hermanos tiene Juan? (How many brothers does Juan have?)

Punctuation

By now, you have probably noticed that opening question mark. Spanish is the only major language to use it, and it is used at the start of every question. This means that sometimes it can appear in the middle of a sentence:

  • Tú hablas inglés, ¿verdad? (You speak English, right?)

Although it might seem like an unnecessary nuance, it does have an advantage. When you're reading, that question mark tells you right away that what follows is a question, and you can adjust your intonation accordingly.

The ending question mark acts as a full stop. It shouldn't be followed by any kind of punctuation other than an exclamation mark, and the adjacent word is always capitalized.

Now that you understand Spanish interrogatives, start trying to ask some simple questions to use what you have learned.