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El que, lo que, and la que

How do you use “lo que” in Spanish, without confusing it with “el que” and “la que”? And when should you use “qué” instead? Let’s dive into all the ways you can say “what” and “the one that” in Spanish. We’ll also learn how to use bueno and bien.

Full Podcast Episode


How many different ways can you say “what” in Spanish?

Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.

Today we’re going to learn some more phrases that you can use as nouns, and we’ll dive deep into the various ways that you can say “what” in Spanish when it’s not part of a question; for example, sentences like “I want what he has”.

But first, let’s learn our first adjective! It’s one you’ve probably heard once or twice in your life, the word bueno.

This word roughly means “good”, and like most adjectives, the ending will change based on the gender of the noun it’s describing. It will be bueno for masculine things and buena for feminine things. Now the tricky thing about this word is that it can go either before or after a noun. For example, “a good house” might be either

una buena casa


una casa buena

Either one is idiomatic. Sometimes English speakers oversimplify by saying that in Spanish all adjectives are supposed to go after nouns, but that’s definitely not true; some adjectives do and some don’t, and some can do either! You’ll learn when to put adjectives before or after nouns as we learn more of them.

Now let’s try using bueno with a masculine noun. That would be either

un chico bueno


un buen chico

Hmm. What happened here?

For some reason, when bueno is used before a masculine noun, it loses the O at the end. This is unique; most adjectives don’t do that. But this is just something to get used to as you use bueno. If you don’t want to deal with this issue, you can simplify by just making it a point to put bueno after masculine nouns instead of before them.

The word bueno is generally used with Ser, because in Spanish, this word for “good” is normally considered a part of something’s identity. So see if you can predict how to say this sentence:

The house was good.

La casa era buena.

And then how about

It’s a good place.

Es un buen lugar.

In that second case, you might have guessed Es un lugar bueno. If you did, you didn’t get it wrong; this is just a situation where there is more than one correct answer.

We can also make either bueno or buena plural by putting a hard S and the end to say buenos or buenas. So see if you can predict how to say this one:

The boys were good.

Los chicos eran buenos.

Now, to clarify something, this is what you would say if you’re talking about the moral character of the boys. They were good boys, meaning that they weren’t bad boys. This sentence could NOT be interpreted to mean that the boys were doing well; in Spanish, “good” or bueno specifically refers to the character of someone or something — what it is or who they are as a person.

So what about when you want to say that you’re “doing good” or “doing well”, not as what you are, but as how you’re doing or how you’re feeling? You’ll use the word bien.

This word, spelled b-i-e-n, is an adverb, and it literally means “well”. For example, if someone asks you how you’re doing, you’re likely to say bien. You would never say bueno or buena. The word bien is used extremely often in Spanish. In English, we might say that we’re doing “fine” or “OK” or “good”, but in Spanish, all of those would be translated as bien. When in doubt, you can do a simple test: If you would use “good” in English, see if it makes sense to use the word “well”. If it does, you’ll use bien. For example, “I feel good today” COULD be “I feel well today”, so that would be bien. But if it doesn’t make sense to say “well”, you’ll use bueno.

Also, since bien is an adverb, it’s used pretty much exactly like the word aquí. And you’ll always use it with Estar, not with Ser. Also, note that adverbs, unlike adjectives and pronouns, don’t change forms based on who is doing well. For example, “the girls are well” still uses the simple word bien:

Las chicas están bien.

Let’s practice using Ser with bueno and Estar with bien. How would you say:

He’s a good boy.

Es un buen chico.

It was a good house.

Era una buena casa.

We’re fine!

¡Estamos bien!

The girl is good.

La chica es buena.

I hope that they’re OK.

Yo hope que estén bien.

Yo espero que estén bien.

Next, let’s talk some more about how to say “what” in Spanish, especially when it doesn’t occur in a question. But in order to do that, we need to talk about some things you can do with articles.

The thing is, in Spanish, articles can sometimes be treated like nouns, by themselves, without requiring nouns or pronouns! How does that work?

Well, it largely comes down to sentence templates like this one:

I like the one that we saw yesterday.

To give this some context, let’s say we’re talking about houses, and we’re comparing different houses. I like the one that we saw yesterday. I could say I like the HOUSE that we saw yesterday, but I’m just using shorthand for that. I just say “the ONE that”.

In Spanish, you don’t say “the one that”. The word “one” isn’t used that way. Instead, the word “one” is simply left out, and you say “the that”.

So here’s how you translate it:

I like la que we saw yesterday.

Me gusta la que vimos ayer.

Or let’s say you’re talking about people. You met a guy but don’t remember his name, so you ask your friend. In English you could say “He was the one that was here.” In Spanish you would say

He was “the that” was here.

Era el que estaba aquí.

Or if it was a girl,

Era la que estaba aquí.

The phrases el que and la que are actually extremely frequent in Spanish. You’ll see them all the time, and you’ll sound more like a native speaker if you start using them all the time too, any time you would say “the one that” in English.

Let’s practice this a bit.

¡She was the one that was in the place!

¡Ella era la que estaba en el lugar!

The one(m) that was here was good.

El que estaba aquí era bueno.

So this is a fun thing we can do with articles, and it’s actually a very, very common way that articles can be used. And while we’re on the topic of articles, we need to learn a new one… the word lo.

Wait a minute. We already learned the word lo as the word for “him”, a masculine direct object. But this word is completely different; it’s used in a totally different way, it doesn’t mean “him”, and it’s not masculine.

This is a bit mind-bending, but this new word, lo, means “the”... specifically, it means “the” when there’s no noun!

Bear with me here, because this is something that almost never happens in English. After saying “the”, we pretty much always use a noun. For example, we might say, “The good thing is that we’re here.”

In Spanish, in sentence templates like that, we don’t always use the word “thing” there. Instead, we just say “the good”, referring to “the good” as an abstract, non-noun idea about what’s good.

The good (thing) is that we’re here.

Lo bueno es que estamos aquí.

Here’s a similar sentence example:

The difficult (thing) is that they aren’t friends.

Lo difficult es que no son amigos.

Lo difícil es que no son amigos.

I mean, in Spanish, in both of these cases, you COULD use the word “thing” which is a noun in Spanish, but that’s not idiomatic. Native speakers are more likely to use lo, this strange word that lets you use “the” without a noun.

So basically, we have a new sentence template we can use, and it looks like this:

Lo [description] es que [sentence].

Of course, for now, we only have one adjective, bueno, so watch for a bunch of sentences entirely in Spanish that start with lo bueno. But with some more adjectives, you can do a lot of fun things with this! Lo strange es que it’s snowing in May… lo terrible es que he won’t call me back, lo funny es que she was sleepwalking.

And again, we’ve now learned multiple different meanings of lo: We can use it a direct object pronoun, meaning “him”, and now we can also use it as an article. The nice thing is that when you see lo in real life, you can always tell which one it is, because if it’s a direct object, it’s going to be directly attached to a verb. If it means “the”, it’s typically going to be right before an adjective. But it will never be before a noun.

Speaking of using articles before a noun, we were just talking about how you can translate the English phrase “the one that” into Spanish, using either el que or la que. But since lo means “the”, is it possible to also say lo que?

Well, yes, and this is actually a super common use of the article lo. For example,

Yo want lo que él has.

Yo quiero lo que él tiene.

This is translated as “I want what he has”. Literally, it’s “I want the that he has”, but instead of using el que for a masculine item or la que for a feminine item, we can use lo que when there is no noun specified. So it’s another case of lo being used as an article without a noun… and in these cases, lo que translates to “what” in English.

But wait. We’ve already learned the word for “what”, the word qué with an accent mark! Well, that word, qué, is pretty much only used in questions and exclamations. The phrase lo que is specifically used when you’re saying “what”, but it’s interchangeable with “the one that”. So in this sentence, “I want what he has”, you could instead say “I want the one that he has”. And since that’s the case, you’ll definitely say lo que.

As another example, how would you translate this one:

I like what you’re cooking.

I like lo que you’re cooking.

Me gusta lo que estás cocinando.

So the word what in this English sentence is interchangeable with the phrase “the one that”. And that’s how you know to use lo que. So typically, when you see the word “what” in English, there are two ways it could be translated: If it’s a question, you’ll use qué, but if it’s interchangeable with “the one that”, you’ll use lo que.

Let’s try a couple more examples:

But what is it?

So in this case, you couldn’t say “but the one that is it”, so this one uses the word qué with an accent mark:

¿Pero qué es?

How about this sentence:

What he said was funny.

So, yes, you could say “the one that he said was funny”. So this is lo que.

Lo que he said era funny.

Lo que dijo era divertido.

I see what you did there.

Yo see lo que you did there.

Yo veo lo que hiciste ahí.

Now for a trickier example: “I don’t know what to do.”

Hmm. You can’t really say “I don’t know the one that to do.” But this is also not a question; there’s clearly a period at the end. This situation is what we call an implied question, and in these cases, you WILL use the word qué with an accent mark, even though there are no question marks around it. Here’s another example.

I don’t know what to say.

Yo no know qué to say.

Yo no sé qué decir.

How about this tricky one:

I don’t know what he said.

So in this case, you technically COULD say “I don’t know the one that he said”, but really this counts as an implied question as well. We’re ALMOST asking “what did he say?” So this will be translated as Qué with an accent mark.

Let’s get some more practice with qué and lo que, along with bueno and bien, using our final quiz.

But are you OK?

¿Pero estás bien?

She is the one that is here.

Ella es la que está aquí.

I hope that you are well.

I hope que estés bien.

Espero que estés bien.

The good (thing) is that you’re here.

Lo bueno es que estás aquí.

I am what I am.

Soy lo que soy.

His friends and I are here.

Sus amigos y yo estamos aquí.

I want it to be what it was.

I want que sea lo que era.

Quiero que sea lo que era.

If it’s the one that was here, it’s my house.

Si es la que estaba aquí, es mi casa.

Either they’re(f) not well or I’m not.

O ellos no están bien o yo no lo estoy.

I hope that they are what I want.

I hope que sean lo que I want.

Espero que sean lo que quiero.

I don’t know what they do.

Yo no know qué ellos do.

When we’re here, your friend(m) will do it.

Cuando estemos aquí, tu amigo lo will do.

Cuando estemos aquí, tu amigo lo hará.

What we did surprised him.

Lo que we did lo surprised.

Lo que hicimos lo sorprendió.

But our house was good.

Pero nuestra casa era buena.

I hope that the good boy is OK.

I hope que el buen chico esté bien.

Espero que el buen chico esté bien.

You’re the one(m) that I met yesterday!

¡Eres el que I met yesterday!

¡Eres el que conocí ayer!

Our friends don’t know what to do.

Nuestros amigos no know qué to do.

Nuestros amigos no saben qué hacer.

I hope that he’s the one that is doing well.

I hope que él sea el que está bien.

Espero que él sea el que está bien.

My friends(f) know what to say.

Mis amigas know qué to say.

Mis amigas saben qué decir.

The sad (thing) was that he wasn’t a good boy.

Lo sad era que no era un chico bueno.

Lo triste era que no era un chico bueno.

For more practice with el que, la que, lo que, and everything else, go to LCSPodcast.com/29.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Ximena Lama-Rondón. Our music was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.

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