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Italian Language/use of: “Che cos’è?


Dear Lauren,

Would you please help me with the following sentence: Che cos’è?

Is the literal translation of this sentence as follows:  “What thing is it?”   but, a better sounding English rendition would be  - “What is it?”

Would you also please tell me if the following is correct or not:

Che cos’è?

che  =  interrogative pronoun meaning “what”
cos’è  =  elision of cosa and è
cosa  =  feminine  noun meaning “thing”
è   =  verb meaning “it is”

If you don’t mind one last question  -  Is “Che cos’è?” the most commonly used  way that Italians ask “What is it?”  or is there a better way that I should know and use?

Thank you very, very much.  I very much appreciate your help.



Hi Rich,

I don't know if you have come across the structure before but in Italian, there are several choices in how to express 'what' in the interrogative. We can say the most common 'che', the less common 'cosa' or a combination of the two: 'che cosa' which I imagine used to be the most frequently used and then gradually got cut down to 'che' over the years as usually happens with language.

Therefore, 'Che cos’è?' is simply 'what is it?' and is the most commonly used way of saying it in Italian. In informal situations, I have also heard 'cos’è?'. However in this case, although not incorrect, I would suggest not using 'che è'. The sound of the two similar 'e' sounds together really grates on the ears and there is definite need for a different vowel or consonant sound to break it up. Hence, 'Che cos’è?' or 'cos’è?'

Hope this helps,
Kind regards,

Italian Language

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Lauren O' Hagan


Although not my mother tongue, I have spoken Italian fluently for more than 12 years so I am very confident to answer any questions about the Italian language. I am also competent in Roman Dialect if there are any questions relating to this.


MA Applied Linguistics First Class Honours in Modern Language Studies (Linguistics, Italian, Spanish) Received the top grade in the whole of UK for GCSE Italian, receiving a letter of congratulations from the Italian Consulate Completed my two-year A Level in 1 year with a grade A country. Carried out many translation jobs for a wide range of clients and topics including self-help, literature and exam papers. For personal reference, I have also translated Federico Moccia's Tre Metri Sopra Il Cielo and 2 of Francesco Totti's book.

El Pensador, University of Bristol

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