Difference between cosa and quale in Italian

How do you use cosa in Italian?

Cosa, also written as che cosa or just che, most often translates as what. In questions, it’s immediately followed by a verb.

Cosa, che cosa, che

Cosa fai domani sera?
What are you doing tomorrow night?

Che cosa devi comprare al supermercato?
What do you have to buy at the supermarket?

Che mangerai per cena?
What will you eat for dinner?

man eating a big meal

Che alone is more informal than the other two alternatives. Unlike cosa and che cosa, it can also precede a noun.

Che leggi?
What are you reading?

Che tipo di farina dovrei usare per la torta?
What kind of flour should I use for the cake?

Che musica ascolti di solito?
What music do you usually listen to?

Remember: never use the question words cosa and che cosa in front of a noun.

man listening to music in the living room

Quale, on the other hand, most often translates which and is more specific than cosa. It can be used, like che, in front of both verbs and nouns, but it usually introduces a limited range of something.

For example, let’s say you are buying shoes in a store and you are shown three different pairs of shoes.

Quale paio di scarpe preferisci?
Which pair of shoes do you prefer?

If it is followed by a verb, it means which one.

Puoi scegliere un giocattolo solo. Quale scegli?
You can only choose one toy. Which one do you choose?

Another difference between cosa and quale in Italian is that quale has two numbers (but no gender): singular and plural. Quale is used in the singular, while quali is used in the plural. Che cosa, on the other hand, has only one form.

Quali orecchini vuoi?
Which earrings do you want?

Quale is also the Italian question word of choice to ask for information by starting your question with “what is/are”. In this case, start your question with qual è in the singular (not a typo: it’s actually qual) and quali sono in the plural.

Qual è il tuo colore preferito?
What is your favorite color?

Quali sono i fiori da innaffiare?
What are the flowers that need watering?

Don’t ask: cos’è il tuo colore preferito?. Don’t use cosa here, always use quale or quali.

a rainbow surrounded by stars

You may remember one of our previous examples:

Che tipo di farina dovrei usare per la torta?
What kind of flour should I use for the cake?

We’re talking about a limited selection of choices here (there are not many types of flour available), so why didn’t we use quale?

Che means not only what, but which! Note, however, that it’s a more informal question word than quale and it can only replace quale in front of nouns. Never replace quale with che if the word is followed by a verb.

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