Forming Questions Using “Que”

When forming sentences in Portuguese, especially questions, English speakers are often surprised by all the seemingly “extra” words that show up. One of these tricky words is que , which can serve many different purposes depending on the context in which it is used.
We hope you can use the examples below to help you understand how and when to use que in its different forms.

When to use “Quê”

Quê What, that, which is the form generally used at the end of a sentence or clause, whether or not it’s an interrogative one.
You can’t end a sentence with que what, that, which so the choice is easy in these cases.
O quê?What?
Não tens de quê! You’re welcome!
Disseste o quê? You said what?
Of these three, O quê? is probably the most common case. It can serve as a simple reply, literally meaning What?, but also, depending on the tone, it can express one’s surprise (What!?) or lack of focus (What!? I wasn’t listening.).
Quê can also appear in other parts of a sentence, but that’s pretty much limited to the following two cases:

  • Sentences/clauses without a verb or with an impersonal verb in the infinitive:
    • Para quê tanto drama? Why so much drama?verb-less sentence
    • Para quê esperar? Why wait?impersonal sentence
  • Sentences/clauses where it’s used as a noun:
    • Isto tem o seu quê de loucura This has a bit of madness to it
    • Aquilo ganhou um quê de intensidade That gained a touch of intensity

And guess what? Quê is the exception. Memorize the few situations in which quê is used and you already know that, in every other case, the choice will probably be between que or o que.

When to use “Que” vs. “O que”

Now, when it comes to que what, that, which, it’s easiest to consider que as the baseline and then look at situations in which the preceding o is optional, mandatory, or not recommended/forbidden.

Optional to use o before que:

  • At the beginning of a question where que is used to mean what and is not followed by a noun.
    • Que se passa? What's happening? = O que se passa? What's happening?
    • Que é que fizeste? What did you do? = O que é que fizeste? What did you do?

Mandatory to use o before que:

  • When o is used as a demonstrative pronoun. Often when you see o que in a statement, it is used to mean something like that which, with o standing in for that thing/that person and que meaning which or that. In these cases, you must use include the o.
    • Eu tenho o que tu precisas. I have what you need - I have that which you need
    • Ela pode fazer o que ela quiser. She can do what she wants - She can do that which she wants

Do not use o before que:

  • When none of the above apply! Que can be used in so many different ways that this list would be endless if we tried to cover each case. Here are a few examples:
    • O carro que nós comprámos é bonito. The car that we bought is beautiful.
      • You do not use o here because the noun has already been specified earlier in the sentence (o carro)
    • Que coisa é essa? What thing is that?
      • When que is immediately followed by a noun, you do not use o before it. The o can be included only if you flip the sentence: O que é essa coisa?What is that thing?
    • O que é que fizeste? What did you do?, What is it that you did?
    • Mesmo que eu tivesse o tempo, não teria a energia. Even if I had the time, I wouldn’t have the energy.

What about “é que” ?

You will hear this pair of words very often in European Portuguese questions, despite the fact that it is optional.
É que can appear after certain question words, such as que, como, or onde, as in the examples below. The question is correct with or without é que, and the meaning stays the same, but it’s just slightly more emphatic when é que is added.
Let’s see some examples of questions with and without the addition of é que:

  • Como te chamas? What is your name?inf.
    • Como é que te chamas? What is your name?inf. – Literal: What is it that you call yourself?
  • O que ele disse?What did he say?
    • O que é que ele disse? What did he say? – Literal: What is it that he said?
  • Onde assino?Where do I sign?
    • Onde é que assino? Where do I sign? – Literal: Where is it that I sign?
  • Como está? How are you?formal
    • Como é que está?How are you?formal – Literal: How is it that you are?

Comments:

  • Is it possible to say just “O que fizeste?” or maybe “O que tu fizeste?” instead of “O que é que fizeste?”, and actually why do we need to use “que” two times in this sentence?

    • Yes, you can, Zoran. It’s absolutely fine to just say “O que fizeste?”. “É que” is just added for emphasis; it doesn’t change the meaning of the question. It can be omitted, but keep in mind that it’s very common for us to add “é que” in the middle of questions, so you’ll sound more idiomatic if you do the same.

      O que fizeste? = What did you do?
      O que é que fizeste? = What is it that you did?

  • Is it possible to imagine swapping “which” or “that which” for the instances of ‘que’ where it’s not recommended to say ‘o que’? Maybe that makes it easier to understand:
    Que é que fizeste? What is it, that which you did?
    Que coisa é essa? Which thing is that?
    O carro que nós comprámos é bonito. The car which we purchased is beautiful.
    Mesmo que eu tivesse o tempo, não teria a energia. Self-same (given) that I had the time, I wouldn’t have the energy.

    • Hi Sheila, you’re not alone! This is definitely a confusing topic because for English learners it seems like so many extra words! I do think it will become clearer over time as you work through the units and practice with the Shorties. It did for me!

      A simpler way you could think of it initially is that “que” can mean “what” or “that”. When it means “what”, you can usually add the “o” before it (unless it’s right before a noun). When it means “that”, you usually don’t add the “o” (unless it’s in the context of “that which”/”that unnamed thing that” when the “o” is serving as a pronoun). Also check out Joseph’s comment above where he talks about “O que fizeste” and “O que é que fizeste”, which I think is a good explanation of how “é que” is used.

  • Try to have a conversation with portuguese using ‘e que’ in additional. Trust me they will impress to you! They usually use it to emphasize they sentence even for us is very repetitive 😀

  • I am completely clueless here about the difference between “quê”, with circumflex, and “que,” without it! Are they different words, used in different situations? Sorry, but I thought there was only one form, “que”. Help! 🙂

  • Sorry about my previous comment! I can see what the lesson is saying and understand it–it’s more my being surprised, because up until now, I have never seen this rule or special usage of “quê” vs. “que”!
    Didn’t mean to be so “dense” about it! 🙂

    • No problem, David! You’re not dense – it’s definitely a confusing topic! And “que” without the circumflex is much more common to see, so it’s easy to miss that other form.

  • I came away from this lesson completely downhearted, que or quê , totally depressing. Obrigado para tentando.

    • Hi Alan, Don’t worry — all these different ways to use “que” feels overwhelming at first, but it will make more sense when you start to see real examples throughout the lessons. I am also working on some changes to make this learning note more clear. This is the first introduction to questions, so it’s completely understandable that you would have some confusion. Let me know if you have any specific questions and hang in there!

  • Yes it is rather confusing. I’ve gone over the lesson numerous times and it became a little clearer each time, the fact that “Que with ^ over the “e” is more clearly explained helps butt the
    rest of it is confusing. Perhaps as Molly stated as we see it more in the shorties it will begine to sink in.

    Anthony

  • The pronunciation of que also seemed varied. Sometimes I hear /kee/, sometimes I hear /ke/, are there any rules too?

    • You’re right, the pronunciation fluctuates! The default pronunciation is always “/ke/” (as in the audio example in the very first paragraph of this Learning Note). But when the word “que” is followed by a vowel, there’s often a sort of liaison that makes us say “/kee/” (as in the audio example for “Que é que fizeste?”). There is no rule for this, but it’s very common.

      When we have two vowels together, but don’t pronounce it as “/kee/”, it’s usually because we’ve simply obliterated the first vowel and stressed the second one to the point where the two words seem totally fused. You can hear it in this Learning Note in “O que é que fizeste?”, which sounds like “O qué que fizeste?”. Either way sounds perfectly natural to us.

      You can hear Rui and Joel talking about this halfway through this podcast (around min 16): Como Falam os Nossos Membros?

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