Learn how to say “What” in Italian

Key Takeaways

Dive into the melodic rhythm of Italian as we unravel the mystery of asking “what” with not one, but three different expressions! Master the art of Italian questions and sound like a local with these essential tips.

  • Embrace the Variations: Whether you’re in a bustling northern city or the heart of Rome, mix it up with che cosa, cosa, or just che to ask “what” like a true Italian. 🇮🇹
  • Formality Matters: Go for che cosa in more formal or literary contexts. It’s the full package and adds an elegant touch to your Italian. 📚
  • Keep it Casual: In everyday chit-chat, cosa is your go-to. It’s the breezy, laid-back way to inquire about things. 😎
  • When in Doubt, Shorten it Out: For the ultimate in casual speech, just drop to che. It’s short, sweet, and gets the point across. 👍
  • Preposition Play: Pair your “what” with prepositions like a, con, di, da, and su to jazz up your questions and sound like a native. 🎶
  • Colloquial Cool: Stick with che in common expressions among friends for that authentic Italian vibe. It’s the secret sauce for sounding local. 🍝

Quick facts

How does Italian expressiveness manifest in conversation?

Italians often use body language and gestures, enhancing their expressiveness in conversations.

Why might Italian sound like singing to some people?

The intonation Italians use when asking questions gives their speech a melodic quality.

What are some essential Italian question words?

Essential question words include dove (where), quando (when), perch (why), come (how), quale (which), chi (who), quanto/quanta (how much), and quanti/quante (how many).

Where are question words typically placed in Italian questions?

Italian question words are usually placed at the beginning of questions.

How many ways can Italians ask "what"?

Italians can ask "what" in three ways: che cosa, cosa, and che.

Which form of "what" is considered more formal in Italy?

Che cosa is generally more formal and often used in formal contexts.

Where is the term "cosa" more commonly used in Italy?

Cosa is more commonly used in Northern Italian cities like Milan and Genoa, and in Sardinia.

Which regions favor the use of "che" for "what"?

Che is commonly used in Central Italy (Florence, Rome) and Southern Italy (Catania).

How did the term "cosa" gain literary significance?

Italian writer Manzoni popularized "cosa" through his influential literary works, giving it dignity.

Can "che cosa," "cosa," and "che" be used with prepositions?

Yes, they can be preceded by prepositions like a, con, di, da, and su to form various questions.

My Thoughts

Question words

Italian is a very expressive language. This is why we love to use body language and gestures to communicate.

Some people say Italians speak as if we were singing. This is probably because of the intonation we use when we ask questions.

Before we focus on “what“, we’re going to teach you some other important question words.

If you already know them, there’s no harm in reviewing them. Here they are:

  • Dove: where
  • Quando: when
  • Perché: why
  • Come: how
  • Quale: which
  • Chi: who
  • Quanto/Quanta: how much
  • Quanti/Quante: how many
Quando vai in Italia?

We usually say these questions words at the beginning of questions. Have a look at the examples below:

Dove vai?

Where are you going?

Perché non venite?

Why aren’t you coming?

Quante persone ci soon?

How many people are there?

As per “what”, you wouldn’t believe it, but we have three different ways of saying this in Italian: che cosa, cosa and che.

If you have a look at the three sentences below, they all mean: “what are you eating?”.

  • Che cosa mangi?
  • Cosa mangi?
  • Che mangi?
Quando vai in vacanza?

Regional differences

Italy is a relatively small country, but there are big differences among regions, especially in terms of accents and vocabulary.

All three forms of saying “what” is correct, and they are interchangeable in spoken Italian.

However, if you go to Italy, you might hear a form more often than the others, depending on where you go.

Che cosa is used all over Italy, but it’s probably more common in formal contexts.

Cosa alone is used more often in cities in Northern Italy like Milan and Genoa, but also in Sardinia (which is the second-largest Italian island).

Che is more commonly used in central Italy, like Florence and Rome, and in the South of Italy, like Catania.

The good thing about this is that you can use all three forms or choose the one that’s easier for you.

Let’s now see what they mean individually.

Chi sei?

Che cosa

Che cosa is the longest one. It is also the classic literary form since it’s somehow more complete and more elegant.

If we split it into two different meanings, che literally means “what,” and cosa means ”thing”. So, basically, che cosa literally means “what thing“.

Che cosa sounds more emphatic than the other two since we’re insisting on the thing in question.

As you can probably tell, we use this when we’re talking about things. The word “things” alone is very vague and broad.

In Italian, when we talk about things, we might refer to materialistic things like objects, food, drinks but also to concepts, ideas, and thoughts.

Let’s have a look at some examples:

Che cosa stai facendo?

What are you doing?

Che cosa stai pensando?

What are you thinking?

Che cosa hai scritto?

What did you write?


As we said above, cosa literally means “thing”. It could be considered a shortened version of che cosa.

Apparently, it was thanks to one of the most well-known Italian writers, Manzoni (who is considered the father of Italian), that cosa was spread as another way of saying che cosa.

It was through his literary works that he gave dignity to cosa alone.

If you think about its literal meaning, it sounds strange to start a question with “thing”. But now you know why we say this so, it’ll probably make more sense.

Here are some examples:

Cosa hai cucinato?

What did you cook?

Cosa studi?

What do you study?

Cosa ti ha detto?

What did she say?


Che alone could be considered the shorter shortened version of che cosa.

It’s definitely more informal and colloquial than the other two, but it’s equally valid. It’s also less common.

Let’s look at some examples:

Che fate?

What are you doing?

Che ti hanno detto?

What did they tell you?

Che leggi?

What are you reading?

Other questions

Che cosa, cosa, or che can also be preceded by prepositions to ask other types of questions.

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These prepositions are a (to/about), con (with), di (of/about), da (from), and su (about).

Again, all three forms of asking “what” are correct. It’s up to you to choose which one to use.

Let’s have a look at some examples:

A che cosa stai pensando?

What are you thinking about?

Con cosa vuoi pulire la casa?

What do you what to clean the house with?

Di cosa state parlando?

What are you talking about?

Common expressions

Some expressions are very common in spoken Italian.

Since they are usually used in more informal contexts (like among friends), we’re going to use the more colloquial way of sayingwhat”: che.

However, since all three forms are fine, you can replace che with the other two to practice.

  • Che ne pensi? (What do you think about it?)
  • Che ci fai qui? (What are you doing here)
  • Che mi racconti? (What’s up?)
  • Che succede? (What’s going on?)
  • Che vuoi fare? (What do you want to do?)
  • Che vuoi di più? (What more could you ask for?)

Now you’re an expert in how to ask questions with “what”. Try to practice and interchange all three forms.

This way, you’ll sound and you’ll be more and more fluent.

If you want to learn or review Italian vocabulary, we recommend checking out the blog post about the 1000 most common Italian words.

Test your knowledge in 10 quick questions

Italian word of the day
Non capivo più niente dal sonno.
I was so tired that I couldn’t think.
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