“What” in Portuguese – Do You Know How to Use It?
It so happens that I have an online assessment for students of Brazilian Portuguese as a foreign language. Although that’s an excellent tool for students to see what their level is, it’s at the same time a great tool for me to see what their most common mistakes are.
And one of the most common mistakes is how to use “what” in Portuguese.
I mean, the word “what”— just to be sure 🙂
In this short grammar discussion, we will see once and for all how to use what in Portuguese properly… And we will find out why students make so many mistakes with this little word.
“What” in Portuguese also means “Which”
What in Portuguese also means which — when you sometimes use what and which in English, Portuguese prefers to use one word: que.
But sometimes Portuguese might rebel and prefer “qual.”
And that’s the primary source of confusion. Students don’t know when to use “que” and “qual.”
I won’t say it’s simple — exceptions abound, especially in colloquial language — but it’s pretty straightforward.
Using Que in Portuguese
Que is mainly an interrogative pronoun. You drop it in a sentence when you want to ask a question.
- Que você está fazendo? Pode me dizer? What are you doing? Can you tell me?
The sentence above is correct according to grammar. But in Brazilian Portuguese, we usually slap the article “O” in front of the pronoun to make it sound better.
- O que você está fazendo? Pode me contar? What are you doing? Can you tell me?
- O que você vai comprar? What are you going to buy?
- O que você comprou na feira ontem? What did you buy at the fair yesterday?
We could create one first rule here. Remember, to every rule, there are a few exceptions. The rule we could make here is:
O que + verb
Making it more impactful and emphatic
We love adding words to our already-perfect sentences in Brazilian Portuguese. It can both soften and strengthen what you say.
In the case of “what,” as in the sentences above, you can make them more emphatic and polite at the same time by adding “é que” (or “foi que”, in the past) after it.
- O que é que você está fazendo? Pode me dizer? What are you doing? Can you tell me?
- O que é que você vai comprar? What are you going to buy?
- O que foi que você comprou na feira ontem? What did you buy at the fair yesterday?
That’s the Portuguese translation of the function that “que” has when it precedes a noun.
In English, it’s when you say, “what book, what program, what car”…
It works kind of like an article, but it never changes its form.
- Que livro você leu? What book did you read?
- Que filmes você gosta de assistir quando tem tempo? What movies do you like to watch when you have time?
- Que amigo você convidaria para viajar com você? What friend would you invite to travel with you?
In the third example, though, if you don’t want to include the person, you can replace it with “Quem” (who), since it’s a person.
- Quem você convidaria para viajar com você? Who would you invite to travel with you?
Using Qual in Portuguese
If what the grammar books say is of any value, “Qual” is used when we have some kind of selection or option implied.
When you point at a freezer full of drinks and ask a friend, “what drink do you want?” That’s when you would use “qual.”
- Qual bebida você quer? What drink do you want?
The tricky thing is, in many situations where you would use “qual,” you could also use “que.”
- Que bebida você quer? What drink do you want?
I have other examples here for you.
- Qual país tem o maior território do mundo? What country has the biggest territory in the world?
- Qual livro você vai levar? Não tenho certeza se eles vão caber todos na mala. What book are you going to take along with you? I’m not sure they will all fit in the bag.
- Qual cachorro você vai adotar? What dog are you going to adopt?
- Qual programa vamos comprar? What program will we buy?
- Que programa vamos comprar? What program will we buy?
- Qual é o programa que vamos comprar? What is the program that we will buy?
But please notice that you can’t use “O que” when you have a noun, implying a choice.
O que programa vamos comprar? (X)
In a simple question where the verb “ser” is the only verb in use, you can leave it out. It’s even more common to do so in speaking.
(That’s one of the reasons you can’t understand your friends when they speak too fast — you’re expecting them to include a verb they usually drop)
- Qual [é] o seu problema? Which [one is] your problem?
- Qual [é] o seu nome?* What [is] your name?
But you can also leave “ser” out in longer sentences. You need to keep the rest of the sentence as is, though.
- Qual [é] o programa que vamos comprar? What [is] the program that we will buy?
*Another common question Brazilians will ask when they want to know your name is, “how is your name?“: “Como é seu nome?”
If you want to reinforce your question — provided your question is about options, and choices — you can use “which of”.
Remember that the contractions apply 🙂
- Qual dos seus amigos fala português? Which of your friends speak Portuguese?
- Qual de vocês quer começar? Preciso que faça uma escolha rápido, porque vamos começar em um momentinho. Which of you wants to begin? I need you to choose fast because we will start in a moment.
- Qual das garotas ficou responsável por começar a apresentação? Which of the girls was in charge of starting the presentation?
- Qual das duas é sua mãe? Elas se parecem muito. Which of the two is your mother? They really look alike.
And last but not least, you use which when you know clearly that there is only one option among many.
- Qual é teu guarda-chuva? Which is your umbrella?
As I said before, exceptions abound for every rule. And exceptions sometimes are the rule in informal conversation.
Keep that in mind. What you learned here is just an extension of what we covered in this article about question words in Portuguese. If you would like to know more, click here.
And if you would like me to clarify any points covered here, ask a question in the comments below.