Any language is full of near synonyms.
In Spanish, you have to watch out not just for similarly spelled words but for the differences implied by the use of diacritics.
What does «¿Qué haces?» mean in English?
The phrase ¿Qué haces? is a question with two meanings. First, it can be a general question about what somebody is doing right now. Second, it can be used to ask someone what they do for a living. Fortunately, it should be obvious from context which meaning is intended.
A simple question with two meanings
The Spanish phrase «¿Qué haces?» is fairly straightforward. It’s made up of only two words: Qué (what) and haces (doing). Put them together and you get “What are you doing?”
There are actually two meanings to this question, though. The first is the literal translation. You can say «¿Qué haces?» to ask someone what they are doing right now, or what they are going to do about something.
The second meaning is closer to the English question “What do you do?”
Here, «¿Qué haces?» is a question intended to ask about someone’s profession or how they otherwise make their living.
The question is written the same either way, so you’ll need to use context to figure out the intended meaning.
If someone just said their own job, for instance, or if you’re pretty sure you aren’t doing anything right now that deserves asking about, chances are good meaning number two is what’s intended.
Here, the first sentence strongly suggests this person is asking what you do for a living. Of course, if you’re doing something a journalist might want to report on, it’s possible they’re just asking what you’re doing right now.
This is clearly not someone asking about a profession, so “what are you doing” is a better translation.
What does «¿Qué haces cuando?» mean in English
The phrase «¿Qué haces cuando?» is a phrase that means “what do you do when?” This is not a complete clause in Spanish, just as it isn’t in English. You can fill in the rest of the question with any specific circumstance. Pay attention to spelling. “Qué haces quando” is incorrect.
The addition of “cuando” to «¿Qué haces?»
The word “cuando” means “when.” By adding this word to the end of «¿Qué haces?» you shift from asking about the present moment to a specific time or circumstance.
However, you can’t use «¿Qué haces cuando?» by itself as it is not a complete clause. Make sure to finish the sentence before asking this question.
As noted above, spelling is important here. The word is cuando, not quando, so only write «¿Qué haces quando?» if you want your Spanish-speaking friends to correct your mistake!
These examples both show how to use «¿Qué haces cuando?» in a full sentence.
What does «¿Qué haces tú?» mean in English?
«¿Qué haces tú?» is nearly identical to «¿Qué haces?» in that it means “What are you doing.” It focuses on what YOU (=tú) are doing, whereas in Qué haces the YOU is implicit.
However, «¿Qué haces tú?» is not used to ask about employment. Unlike «¿Qué haces?», it can also be used to talk about habitual and specific actions in statements, as well as asking someone a question in the present.
The subtle difference of «¿Qué haces tú?»
This question is nearly identical to «¿Qué haces?» However, the addition of tú (you) on the end changes the way this question is used.
First of all, you can still use «¿Qué haces tú?» to ask what someone is doing right now.
However, «qué haces tú» can also be used with cuando to ask someone what they do habitually in a specific situation and to use the phrase “what you do” in a statement, rather than asking a question.
Here, «qué haces tú» is used with cuando to form a statement.
In this case, it’s used to ask about a specific situation.
What does «lo que haces» mean in English?
The Spanish phrase «lo que haces» means “what you do” or “what you are doing.” Pay close attention to the word «que» in this phrase. Because there’s no accent over the e (é), this “what” is not a question but a statement. That means you can’t use «lo que haces» to ask what someone is doing.
«¿Qué haces?» and «lo que haces»: a very important difference
Those familiar with Spanish will already have spotted the key difference between «¿Qué haces?» and «lo que haces». If you’re new to the language, it might surprise you that there are actually two differences.
The more obvious difference is the question marks. «¿Qué haces?» is clearly a question. Of course, «lo que haces» also starts with the word “lo,” used with “que” as a phrase “lo que” to mean “what.”
A more subtle change in «lo que haces» is the removal of the accent mark over the e.
Although it can be hard to wrap your head around, this actually makes two completely different words.
Que means “that,” while qué means “what.”
In other words, «¿Qué haces?» means “What are you doing?” but «que haces» means “that you do.” Like «¿Qué haces cuando?», «lo que haces» is not a complete clause and must be followed by additional words to make sense.
The bottom line is to be careful when you read and write these two nearly interchangeable phrases to make sure you’re properly understanding what people are saying and that you’re properly being understood yourself.
This is the Spanish translation of a famous line of dialogue from Mel Brooks’ classic comedy Blazing Saddles.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.