Master Question Words in Portuguese: O que, Que, Qual

Portuguese lesson to learn how to use these question words in Portuguese: O que, Que, Qual

In this Portuguese lesson you will learn how to use three question words in Portuguese: O que, Que, Qual. These question words all mean what, but they are not usually interchangeable, which, understandably, causes Portuguese speakers a great deal of confusion.

To add to the challenge, Portuguese language textbooks offer the same definition for que and o que without offering any tips to help you use them correctly and avoid common mistakes.

Fret no more. My tips will help you use O que, Que and Qual in Portuguese correctly.

Make sure you do the practice exercise at the end of this lesson.

How to use O QUE

  • O que? = what?

The textbook explanation is that you use o que when you are asking for a definition or an explanation.

But that is not the whole picture. This is simply not enough to help you use this question word correctly and avoid a common mistake.

Here are my tips to use O QUE correctly:

  • O QUE is followed by a pronoun (eu, você, ele, meu, seu, aquele, esse), a person or a verb (ser, estar, acontecer etc.).
  • O QUE is never followed by a noun. That’s when we use que instead. You will see that in the next section.

Here are examples using O QUE:

  1. O que você deu à Ana no Dia dos Namorados? = What did you get Ana for Valentine’s Day?
  2. O que você vai fazer amanhã? = What are you going to do tomorrow?
  3. O que Maria vai fazer amanhã? = What is Maria going to do tomorrow?
  4. O que você vai pedir? = What are you going to order?
  5. O que ele disse?  = What did he say?
  6. O que aconteceu? = What happened?
  7. O que está acontecendo? = What is happening?
  8. O que é “louça”? = What is “louça”?

O que é que é isso? Understand that added É QUE

You will often hear questions in Portuguese with an added é que right after the question word.

The use of é que is optional and does not change the meaning of the question. It is more commonly seen in spoken Portuguese.

Thus, the questions above could be worded like this:

  1. O que é que você deu de presente à Ana no Dia dos Namorados? = What did you get Ana for Valentine’s Day?
  2. O que é que você vai fazer amanhã? = What are you going to do tomorrow?
  3. O que é que Maria vai fazer amanhã? = What is Maria going to do tomorrow?
  4. O que é que você vai pedir? = What are you going to order?
  5. O que é que ele disse?  = What did he say?
  6. O que é que aconteceu? = What happened?
  7. O que é que está acontecendo? = What is happening?
  8. O que é que é “louça”? = What is “louça”?

When to use QUE (and not to use O QUE)

  • Que? = what?

The textbook explanation is that you use QUE when you are asking for a definition or an explanation (same as above).

So, both que? and o que? translate as ‘what?’. Then why are they not interchangeable?

Because of the structure of the sentence.

Here is my tip to use QUE correctly:

  • QUE is followed by a noun. Remember that O QUE, on the other hand, is not followed by noun.

Here are examples:

  1. Que tipo de música você mais escuta? = What kind of music do you listen to the most?
  2. Que livro você está lendo? = What book are you reading?
  3. Que comidas eles serviram na festa de Natal? = What foods did they serve at the Christmas party?
  4. Que tradições e superstições de Ano Novo são comuns no Brasil? = What New Year traditions and superstitions are common in Brazil?
  5. Que cidades você visitou no Brasil? = What cities have you visited in Brazil?
  6. Que barulho é esse? = What is this noise?
  7. Que seriados você está vendo no momento? = What shows are you currently watching?

Avoid this common mistake:

A common mistake that I see is asking:

  • O que tipo…?

Remember that o que is not followed by a noun.

If you don’t like grammar terms, that is OK. Just keep in mind that to ask ‘what type of…?’ or ‘what kind of…?’ you cannot use O QUE. You have to use QUE.

Learn how to use the question word QUAL?

  • Qual? = what? or which?

The textbook explanation is that you use qual to ask ‘what?’ when the answer is not a definition or an explanation.

I find that difficult to process in real time during a conversation.

Here’s how I think about QUAL : The answer to a question using QUAL is usually one of many options in a list of possibilities. It’s as if you are asking: “Out of all the possibilities…, which one is it?”

This sounds a bit awkward, but it will help you understand when to use QUAL. With practice, it will get into auto-pilot mode and you won’t have to think about it anymore.

Notice that in the examples below that QUAL is followed by the verb ser. This is a common type of question using qual. But keep in mind that the verb could be omitted from these questions.

  1. Qual é o seu telefone? = What is your phone (number)?

(Out of all the possible phone numbers, which one is yours?)

  1. Qual é o seu endereço? = What is your address?

(Out of all the addresses in the phone book, which one is yours?)

  1. Qual é o seu gênero de filme preferido? = What is your favorite movie genre?
  2. Qual é o cargo dele na empresa? = What is his position with the company?
  3. Qual é a diferença entre bem e bom? = What is the difference between bem and bom?

A common way to ask someone’s name in Brazil is:

  • Qual é o seu nome? = What is your name?

How to use QUAL meaning WHICH

  • Qual?= which?

When QUAL means which, it is followed by a noun.

You can usually use either QUAL or QUE in these questions. It makes sense, since QUE is followed by a noun.

  1. Qual carro você comprou? = Que carro você comprou? = Which car did you buy?
  2. Qual proposta você vai aceitar? = Que proposta você vai aceitar? = Which offer will you accept?

The plural of QUAL is QUAIS

You need the plural when the noun that follows QUAL is in its plural form.

  1. Quais livros você leu recentemente? = Que livros você leu recentemente? = Which books have you read recently?
  2. Quais restaurantes você recomenda em Salvador? = Que restaurantes você recomenda em Salvador? = Which restaurants do you recommend in Salvador?

Final thoughts

With language, we often don’t have that one trick, translation or definition that makes total sense and that is all we need to use the new grammar correctly forever and ever.

That is just not how language works.

So, although you just learned the key points to use o que, que and qual in Portuguese, you may still find yourself being corrected by native speakers. This is OK. It is a part of the language journey.

Learning a language takes consistent practice. Through repetition, grammatical structures go into autopilot in your brain.

Here is how I suggest that you practice these questions words: Choose one of the questions in this lesson and spend a few days using it.

For instance, to avoid the common mistake of asking “O que tipo de…?”, choose the question:

  • Que tipo de música você mais escuta?

Then spend a few days using it.

Try this:

  • Ask different questions that start with “Que tipo de…?”
  • Google “Que tipo de” and see what you find. But don’t just glance at the search results. Read some of the pages from the results so you can see the question used in context.

But the careful with Google results! Whenever you Google something in Portuguese, you need to make sure you choose results in Portuguese and not in Spanish, or you may end up very confused :)

Practice exercise: Question words O QUE, QUE, QUAL in Portuguese

Fill in the blanks with one of the following options:

  • o que
  • que
  • qual

The answers are right below the exercise.

1. __________ é isso?

2. Você está triste? __________ posso fazer para ajudar?

3. ______ tipo de comida eles servem nesse restaurante?

4. ___________ você faz?

5. Você sabe ________ que ele está fazendo?

6. _______ música você está ouvindo?

7. ________ é a sua cor preferida?

8. __________ línguas você fala?

9. __________ é a sua profissão?

10. __________ sua namorada faz?

11. _________ é o principal produto exportado pelo Brasil?

Aswers:

1. O que

2. O que

3. Que / Qual

4. O que

5. o que

6. Que / Qual

7. Qual

8. Que / Quais

9. Qual

10. O que

11. Qual

Note: This Portuguese lesson was originally posted in March 2018. It has been updated with a new video and additional examples, and a practice exercise.


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