If you think ‘cómo’ is ‘how’ and ‘qué’ is ‘what’, you’d be right … most of the time that is.
Have you ever said something to a native Spanish speaker and received a bemused look and a ‘¿cómo?’ as a response – instead of the ‘qué’ you expected? Yes? Me too.
You feel topsy-turvy like poor Alice in Wonderland. But that’s part of the fun of learning another language. So, come with me down the rabbit hole and let’s learn the main uses of ‘cómo’and ‘qué’.
Oh, and we’ll also take a peek at the most troublesome areas of confusion when choosing between the two!
1. ‘Cómo’ *generally* translates to ‘how’ –
¿Cómo estás? = How are you?
2. We also use ‘cómo’in comparison sentences (just as we would the English word ‘as’) –
Eres tan viejo como yo. = You’re as old as I am.
3. Another way to use ‘cómo’ is to express ‘what’ in the sense of “I don’t understand”.It’s basically more polite than a harsher sounding ‘¿Qué?’.
And doesn’t ‘qué’ mean ‘what’? Well, not always, amigos.
1. ‘Qué’ generally means ‘what’ when used in questions –
¿Qué haces? = What are you doing?
2. And ‘qué’ in combination with ‘tan + adjective/adverb’ is used to talk about the EXTENT of something (and roughly translates to ‘how’).
You’ll see it a lot in questions –
¿Qué tan bueno es este artículo? = How good is this article?
¿Qué tan difícil podría ser? = How difficult could it be?
So, that’s it in a nutshell, but stay with me if you wanna forever banish those lingering doubts to wherever it is that they belong (i.e., NOT in that head of yours!).
When to use ‘cómo’ / ‘como’
We use ‘cómo’ in much the same way as we would the English word ‘how’when forming questions and stating facts.
Some simple examples –
How are you?
How do we get there?
Me gusta como te vistes.
I like how you dress.
Erika’s interruption – Rupert, don’t forget to mention that if you’re ever in Mexico City, you’re definitely going to hear a very colloquial question with ‘cómo’.
Oh yeah, thanks, Erika. I remember the first time I heard it. It’s quite a tale.
I was getting home and had just got off my bike, wiping sweat from my brow (a hot day!) and was about to go into my apartment building, when a kind old man (who always sat outside on a fold-out chair in the street, and made chit-chat with passers-by) asked me:
“¿A cómo estamos, joven?” (“How are we, young man?” … right?)
I quickly responded with a: “Pues, muy bien. Gracias por preguntar.” (“Very well. Thanks for asking.”)
“No-no,” he said, “¿AAAA cómo estamos?”
Thinking he was hard of hearing, I (naively) responded: “¡MUY BIEN! ¡GRACIAS POR PREGUNTAR!”
“NO-NO,” he said, “¿AAAA CÓMOOOO ESTAMOOOOS?”
This went on a few times until we both shrugged and gave up and went our separate ways.
That night I told Erika about my interaction with the deaf old man. She laughed hysterically and told me that he just wanted to know the date …
What? Yes, indeed. ‘¿A cómo estamos?’ is a colloquial way to ask for the date.
Check this example out –
¿A cómo estamos?
What’s the date today?
Estamos a 17 de Abril.
It’s the 17th of April.
And we’ve actually covered this use in the epic vid we made on ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ (sneaky plug, please don’t hate on me!).
Anyway, back to the article …
I know how to / I don’t know how to
Now, I’d love to be able to give you an example like ‘I don’t know how to sew’.
But, honestly, most of the time it’s better to say ‘no sé coser’ because ‘saber’ implies the ‘how to do something’.
More examples of that –
No sé bailar.
I don’t know how to dance.
Él sabe hacer chilaquiles.
He knows how to make chilaquiles.
No sabemos cuidar a los perros.
We don’t know how to take care of dogs.
An exception to this is with the verb ‘llegar’ with which you SHOULD use ‘cómo’ –
No supieron cómo llegar.
They didn’t know how to get here.
Tan + adjective/adverb + como
We also use ‘como’ in combination with ‘tan + adjective/adverb’ for ‘as… as’ comparisons.
Remember: this ‘como’ DOESN’T have an accent.
Ella habla español tan bien como tú.
She speaks Spanish as well as you.
Mi departamento no es tan grande como el tuyo.
My apartment isn’t as big as yours.
El cielo es tan azul como el mar.
The sky is as blue as the sea.
‘Cómo’ when you haven’t understood something …
‘Cómo’ can also be used when you don’t understand something that someone’s said to you.
You might be tempted to say ‘¿qué?’and that’s okay, but it’s a tad rude for some, so it’s generally better to say ‘¿cómo?’.
It means something like ‘how so?’ /‘how’s that?’.
A man who hasn’t been learning Spanish for long walks into a bar …
Yo queremos un beer muy caliente.
I we want a beer very hot.
The very confused Peruvian waiter says:
The Peruvian waiter just wants to be nice, you see?
There are more uses of ‘cómo’, but the above mentioned are some of the most common stumbling blocks for us learners of Spanish!
When to use ‘qué’ / ‘que’
Let’s talk about QUÉ, baby!
¿Qué-qué? ¿Qué de qué?
According to the RAE, ‘que’ is the third most used word in the Spanish language, meaning you’ll hear and use it every day AND many times within a day.
It means many things, but I’ll focus on the most common and necessary uses and those troublesome confusion areas with ‘cómo’.
‘Qué’ means ‘what’ in questions –
A few examples –
What are you doing?
¿En qué calle viven?
What street do they live on?
¿Con qué producto limpias tu estufa?
What product do you clean your stove with?
Random question, I know, but I’d like to find something better than what I’m using now … if you don’t mind.
Qué / Que + adjective/adverb
Strangely (for us speakers of English at least!), we use ‘qué tan + adjective/adverb’ for ‘how + adjective/adverb’ questions in English.
A couple of examples –
¿Qué tan grande es Buenos Aires?
How big is Buenos Aires?
¿Qué tan bien hablas el español?
How well do you speak Spanish?
And ‘que’, without that pesky accent, means ‘than’ when comparing people or things –
Soy más alto que tú.
I’m taller than you.
El* agua es muy rica, y es mejor que tu coca.
Water is delish, and better than your coca cola.
La comida acá es menos sabrosa que allá.
The food here is less tasty than over there.
*Erika’s note – although water is a feminine noun, we use the masculine article ‘el’.
There’s a ton more uses of ‘qué’, but I’ve highlighted some of the most common AND all the cases in which you might confuse ‘cómo’ with ‘qué’.
So, you see, to say that ‘cómo’ is ‘how’ and ‘qué’ is ‘what’ is far too simplistic, but after reading this article I’m sure you’ll feel more confident when using both AND hopefully never confuse them again (well, that’s the idea anyway!).
If you’re in the mood for more words that are oft confused in Spanish grammar, definitely head on over to one of the following –
‘estuve’ vs ‘estuvo’
‘lo que’ vs ‘que’ (yep, the one I mentioned earlier!)
‘cualquier’ vs ‘cualquiera’
‘de’ vs ‘del’