Que vs. O Que vs. Quê

When to use “quê”

Quê What, that, which is generally used at the end of a sentence/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.
Não tens de quê! You’re welcome!
Disseste o quê? You said what?
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?verbless 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” and “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 start of an interrogative sentence/clause where que is used to mean “what” and is not followed by a noun. If you can mentally replace que with que coisa what thing in an interrogative sentence, you should also be able to use o optionally.
    • Que (coisa) se passa? — What (thing) is happening?
      • Que se passa? What's happening? = O que se passa? What's happening?
    • Que (coisa) é que fizeste? — What (thing) did you do?
      • 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. If you can mentally replace o with aquilo that (a more recognizable demonstrative pronoun), you know that the o cannot be removed from the sentence.
    • Eu tenho (aquilo) que tu precisas. — I have that which you need.
      • Eu tenho o que tu precisas. I have what you need.
    • Ela pode fazer (aquilo) que ela quiser. — She can do what it is that she wants.
      • Ela pode fazer o que ela quiser. She can do what she wants.

Not recommended to use o before que:

  • When none of the above apply! Que can be used in so many different ways on its own that this list would be endless if we tried to cover each case. Here are a few examples:
    • Que é que fizeste? What did you do?Only the first “Que” can be optionally replaced by “O que”.
    • Que coisa é essa? What thing is that?Here, because que is immediately followed by a noun, there should not be an o before it. Your only other option would be to flip the sentence: O que é essa coisa?What is that thing?
    • O carro que nós comprámos é bonito. The car that we bought is beautiful.
    • Mesmo que eu tivesse o tempo, não teria a energia. Even if I had the time, I wouldn’t have the energy.

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”. 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.

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