An important step to take when studying Italian is learning how to say what in italian.

Depending upon the context What in Italian can be translated into che, che cosa, cosa, quale, quali, qual, quello che, ciò che, la cosa che.

Let’s go over each use of what in Italian, so that you can be sure which one to say.

Question Words

First, we need to talk about question words, normally employed at the beginning of a question.

Among these ones, we find what, which can be translated in different ways, as you can see in the following examples.

Che cosa è successo? Non mi ha dato spiegazioni.
What happened? He didn’t give me any explanations. 

Cosa devo comprare? Latte, uova e poi?
What am I supposed to buy? Milk, eggs and then? 

Che ci hai messo in questa torta? Per caso la cannella?
What did you put in this cake? Cinnamon, I guess?  

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Che cosa

Che cosa is the longest form to say what in Italian. It is chiefly employed all over Italy and is more common in formal contexts.

Apparently, it seems to be a more emphatic expression since we are insisting on the thing in question by literally saying “what thing”.

It can only be followed by a verb, and not by a noun.


Che cosa stanno aspettando?
What  are they waiting for?

Che cos’è tutta questa confusione? Smettetela, ragazzi!
What’s all this mess? Guys, stop it!

A che cosa stai lavorando in questo periodo? Posso saperlo?
What are you working on in this period? May I ask?      


Together with che, cosa is the shortest version of che cosa and it literally means thing.

It’ used all over Italy, especially up North and in Sardinia, one of the wonderful Italian islands.

Moreover, it can be found in Italian world-famous novels and literary works, too.

Same as for che cosa, it can only be followed by a verb.


Non mi hai detto cosa ti piacerebbe fare nel tuo giorno libero.
You haven’t told me what you would like to do on your day off.

Cosa vuoi mangiare a cena? Spaghetti o crocchette di pollo?
What do you want to eat for dinner? Spaghetti or chicken nuggets?

Cosa dovrei organizzare? Una festa o un pranzo tra amici?
What should I organise? A party or a lunch with close friends?     


Che is the other shortened form of che cosa. It’s clearly more colloquial and widely spread in cities of central and southern Italy like Rome, Napoli and Palermo. Unlike cosa and che cosa, che can be followed by both verbs or nouns.


Che ingredienti ti servono per preparare la pastiera napoletana?
What ingredients do you need to bake Neapolitan pastiera?  

Ma che sta dicendo? Non capisco mai niente quando parla!
What is she saying? I never understand anything when she talks!

Che stai cercando? Senti, qui non c’è niente!
What are you looking for? Look, there’s nothing here!


Quale basically stands for which in English, even if what is equally valid. You are required to use it in front of singular nouns.    


Quale giacca indosserai stasera? Quella elegante o casual?
What / Which jacket are you going to wear this evening? The elegant or casual one? 

Di quale argomento ci vorrebbe parlare?
What / Which topic would you like to speak about? 

Non so quale reazione potrebbe avere se venisse a saperlo.
I don’t know what / which reaction she could have if she found it out!


On the contrary, quali must be employed when you are referring to plural nouns. 


Quali attività sono previste oggi?
What / Which activities are planned today?

Quali maglioni potrei comprare a prezzo scontato?
What / which sweaters could I buy at a discounted price?

Allora quali sono i tuoi progetti per il futuro?
So, what / which are your plans for the future? 

Qual è

Quale loses the final ending –e and lacks of apostrophe when followed by the third person singular of essere in the present tense of indicative mood.


Qual è il numero di cellulare di Jacob?
What’s Jacob’s mobile number?

Qual è l’indirizzo di casa di Chiara e Melinda?
What is Chiara and Melinda’s home address?

Qual è il tuo romanzo preferito?
What is your favourite novel?

Quello che / ciò che

While quello che is more common in the spoken language, ciò che is definitively more polished and largely employed in the written language.


Prendete quello che volete! Non fate complimenti!
Take what you want! Don’t stand on ceremony!

Quello che mi sorprende è la sua totale mancanza di empatia.
What surprises me is her total lack of empathy.  

Fa’ ciò che ritieni più giusto per te. Non ti giudicherò.
Do what you think is best for you. I won’t judge you.  

La cosa che

Literally “the thing that”, la cosa che has the same meaning of quello che and ciò che. Also this statement is principally applied in everyday language.


La cosa che odio di più nella vita è la slealtà.  
What I hate most in life is disloyalty.

Fare sport è la cosa che amo di più.
Playing sports is what I love the most.

La cosa che mi ha fatto innamorare di te è stato il tuo sguardo.
What made me fall in love with you was your smile. 


When you don’t understand what someone is saying, you can utilize Scusa? (Excuse me?) when talking to friends or relatives, while Scusi? (Excuse me?) or Come, scusi? (Sorry, what?) when referring to strangers. Come usually means how, but it’s employed in this situation as well.


Vuoi che ce ne andiamo? – Scusa?
Do you want us to leave? – What?

Signore, a che ora parte il treno per Milano? – Scusi?
Sir, what time does the train to Milan leave? – Excuse me?

Signora Rossi, ha bisogno di una mano con la spesa? – Come, scusi?
Do you need any help with your groceries, Mrs Rossi? – Sorry, what?

What in Italian – Main uses

So, we introduced the main translations of what in Italian. Now, let’s take a closer look.

What in Italian can be applied both as an interrogative adjective and pronoun and in combination with prepositions.

The first option belongs to the category of the so-called interrogatives.  These ones, used in a sentence to introduce a question, can be adjectives in case they are followed by a noun, or pronouns when they replace a noun instead.    

What as an Interrogative Adjective

When it is followed by a noun, what in Italian acts as an interrogative adjective. In this case, you can just employ che or quale / quali. According to their use, che is mainly applied when making reference to

something general without specification, while quale relates to limited options.


Che materie ti piacevano quando andavi a scuola?
What subjects did you like when you used to go to school?

Che libri leggi di solito quando sei in vacanza?
What books do you usually read when you are on holiday?

Secondo te, quali pantaloni devo comprare? Quelli blu o rossi?  
In your opinion, which pants should I buy? Blue or red ones?

As you may have noticed, in the first and second sentence reference wasn’t made to the type of books reading on holiday. On the contrary, in the third statement there has been mention of the features (specifically the colour) of pants to be bought.

What as an Interrogative Pronoun

In presence of a verb, what in Italian is classified as an interrogative pronoun. In this case, it translates all the expressions we have encountered so far.


Che cosa vuoi da me? Non ho fatto niente!
What do you want from me? I haven’t done anything!

Ma che ti è venuto in mente? Sei davvero folle, lo sai?
What were you thinking? You are truly insane, you know that?  

Ecco delle arance e delle pere. Quali preferisci?
Here are some oranges and pears. Which ones do you prefer? 

What with prepositions

In case of sentences built with phrasal verbs, prepositions must be put before what in Italian, not at the end of the statement as in English.

Look at the following examples, focusing on the differences between Italian and English:

Italian English
Con cosa giocano bambini? What are the kids playing with?
A cosa ti riferisci? What are you referring to?
Di cosa vorresti parlare? What would you like to talk about?

What in Italian – Everyday expressions

Differently from the other solutions mentioned before, che occurs in lots of informal statements in Italian. Since these ones are widely used in the spoken language, they are considered as idioms.

Then let’s have a look at these everyday questions:

Italian English
Che succede? What’s going on?
Che vuoi fare? What do you want to do?
Che mi racconti? What’s up?
Che ci fai qui? What are you doing here?
Che ne pensi? What do you think about it?

If you want to learn even more effectively, do it through music, listening to songs like this:

Now that you have all the tools to use what in your daily conversations, first try to practice and then tell your Italian friends che cosa hai imparato!   

By: Alfonso Di Somma

Born and raised in Italy, he is an Italian professional translator and a tireless traveler. His main passion? Foreign languages!