Cos'è or Qual è-- how do you choose which one to use?

This must be one of the most commonly misunderstood concepts in all of beginner Italian (along with the verb "piacere" and "clitics" on Duolingo!).

Start with this.
They tell us that che, and cosa, and che cosa are all equivalent in Italian, meaning "what".
But literally, Che is "what", Cosa is "thing", and "Che cosa" is "what thing".
Never mind that that "cosa" is also sometimes used to mean "what", on its own. This will make more sense to English speakers to use "che" as what and "cosa" as thing.
Finally, è translates as "it is" (or "is it?", in a question).

If you are asking a question and you are asking what something is-- a definition of what something is-- then you'll want to use che or cos'è (the abbreviated form of cosa + è). Because you are asking "What is it?/ what is this thing ?"

Next, we come to Quale, translated as "which" in English.
And, in the same way that cosa + è became "cos'è", quale + è becomes "qual è". "Which is it?", or even "Which one is it?".

Now if you are asking for an opinion, or if the question involves a choice or requests personal information (like a name or a phone number or an address), then that is when you want to use Qual è.

For that reason, you normally want to use "qual 'è" when you are asking a question about a noun, unless you want to know the definition of that noun and in that case you'd use "cos'è.

Staying in English for just another moment:

  • What is a pen? It is a tube full of ink that you use to write letters with.
  • What is your birth date? It is the exact day that your mother gave birth to you.

You see? A definition of "what is...?".

  • What is your birth date? It is October 14th, 1985.
  • What shirt fits me better? The black one fits the best.

This time you're asking for information, or an opinion, or asking to make a choice. "Which one?"

In Italian it works the same way. You can ask for a definition or ask for an opinion or for information, and the word "what" changes from cos'è to qual è:

  • Cos'è una penna (What is a pen? It is something you might use to write with.)
  • Cos'è il tuo compleanno (What is your birthday? It is the anniversary of the day that you were born.)
  • Qual è il tuo numero di telefono? (What is your phone number?)
  • Qual è la sua altezza? (What is his height? He is 1.65 m tall.)

Unfortunately, as with most things Italian, there are always exceptions and you'll need to be careful with certain types of sentences.
For instance, if you are inquiring about specific personal information then you might use cos'è after all:

  • Cos'è il tuo colore preferito? (What is your favorite color? Of any color? Mine is green.)


  • Qual è il tuo colore preferito? (Among these shirts, what (which one) is your favorite color? My favorite shirt is the red one; the green one has too many pockets on it.)
March 30, 2016


This is a great breakdown of the difference between "quale" and "cosa." Just a couple things:

1) You wouldn't use "cosa" when asking someone to identify their favorite color; that would be asking for a definition, like you said.

2) It's "qual è" (no apostrophe). This is a common mistake, even among native speakers.

When I explain this, I like to think about it as "qual" always representing a choice between different possibilities, versus "cosa" which wants one set definition. So when I ask, "Qual è il tuo nome?," for example, there are lots of different names out there, and I want to know which specific one is yours.

March 31, 2016

For Mabby: Congratulations for your Italian. There is only a wrong point, difficult also for the Italians when they are not able to distinguish an elision from an apocope (that we call also “truncation”). Let me put the things in an easy way, if I can. When for phonetic reasons we drop a vowel (to “avoid the hiatus”) or a syllable, we have to put an apostrophe (elision) to “remind” that the elided word doesn’t exist; when we can have an apocope, no apostrophe because the word can exist in itself. Let’s take yours “cos’è” and “qual è”. “Cos” does not exist, but “qual” does: “Qual buon vento ti porta ( = what brings you here)? So you have to write "cos'è", but “qual è, qual era, etc” WITHOUT apostrophe. If you have doubt, put the word you “shorten” before a word starting with a consonant: if you feel good the union, it’s an apocope, if not, it is an elision. So, “un amico” (no apostrophe, because you can say “un momento”), but “un’amica” (apostrophe, because you can not say “un gatta”). But, I repeat, it’s not an easy argument. I have to add that we don't say "cos'è il tuo compleanno", because the birthday is not a thing (= cosa), but "Quand'è" (when is it). The sentence could exist if a friend of yours says "It's a sad anniversary for me, today..." Perbacco (= by Jove)! Cos'è? Il tuo compleanno?", because - at least at a certain age - to add another year is not "una bella cosa"....

March 31, 2016

Grazie-- I did know that but I was copying and pasting text and an extra apostrophe made it into my text along the way.
I have made some edits.

March 31, 2016

I tried to explain why there is this difference. You don't know how many Italians (on newspapers also) make the same mistake!

March 31, 2016

Bookmarked, thanks!

March 30, 2016

Oh, bless you! I always used to get this wrong and now I'm getting it less wrong because I've been instinctively understanding it better, but this is so clear and helpful. Thank you for the explanation.

March 31, 2016

Complimenti MABBY, spiegazione perfetta! Piccola precisazione per l'uso dell'apostrofo:

  • un + maschile (un uomo)

  • una + femminile (una gatta)

  • una + femminile che comincia per vocale metto l'apostrofo ("una estate" diventa "un'estate" perché le due vocali sono vicine, infatti se scrivo "una bellissima estate" non ci vuole l'apostrofo).

April 1, 2016

Good stuff.

April 1, 2016

Thanks for taking the time to explain this.

April 1, 2016

I don't know whether I am the addressee of these "thanks": if I am, at your disposal for other explanations. Have a good day

April 2, 2016

Thanks Berto (and Mabby). Have a lovely day.

April 2, 2016

...the same to you.

April 2, 2016

I have sent you a message.

April 2, 2016

Hi, I read both of your posts about this subject (also this, and it really helped me, so thank you :) I think I got the different usages, I just want to verify that I understood all of them correctly:

If What I ask about: 1 - not a multiple known choices (not a which) 2 - not about personal information 3 - the person that ask this expects to be given with a fact, not an opinion.

Then the term should be Cos'è (like your example in the other post - What is it that you see?)

Have I understood you correctly? And is this true for translating those sentences:

  • What is the most common animal in the reserve?
  • What is the closest city to here? (the person asking does not know the area, therefor does not know what are the options)
  • What are the flag's colors?
  • What is the country's favorite color? (in contrast to your/their color which are personal questions - this is about statistic)

I also want to ask you about the reliability of google translate. I used those sentences and the "what is/are" was translated to Qual è/ Quali sono. Does google do a good job in general with grammar issues (regardless if I am wrong with my examples)?

Anyway, I want to thank you again for your extended explanations, and want to thank you or anyone that could clarify those points :)

September 18, 2018

Cos'è can signify at least two things: 1) If I ask you "cos'è un libro" you have to give me the definition (e.g.: number of sheets of paper fastened together in a cover: this because you understand I know the name of the object, keeping in mind that "definire" means "to put the confines (fines, in L.): only what is in the definition is correct, outside we are speaking of another thing. So, for instance, one sheet is not a book, nor if it is of bread instead of paper etc.). 2) If you ask simply "Cos'è?" you don't ask a definition, but the name (the purpose, or other) of a thing unknown to you. For instance, you see a template. You ask: "Cos'è?" the reply will be "Una dima". The "che", saying cos'è or qual è, is understood. In other words, both the expressions are the contraction of "che cosa è/quale cosa è. "Quale" is used for asking the quality of something/ somebody or it/ his nature, it/his identity. In front of many books, if you say "Mi piace quel libro", I'd ask: "Quale?/qual (è) di questi (ti piace)?" But a language does not live of rules, it lives by reading of good writers...

September 18, 2018

Those would indeed all be translated with "qual è" or "quali sono." "Qual è" is what you use to identify something (whether it be fact or opinion). "Cos'è" asks for a definition of something. If we look at your examples, they all ask to identify an option. For example, for the first one, there are many animals on the reserve. We want to know which specific one is the most common. For the second, there are many cities in the world. We want to know which specific one is the closest.

September 18, 2018

First of all thank you for your quick reply :)

I am a little bit confused, If I understand you correctly, "Cos'è" should be used only for definition of something, While "Qual è"" for all identification (if all the options are known or not). So how MABBY example "What is it that you see?" the "what is" translated to "Cos'è"? This is also an identification (from all the things out there).

I thought those sentences will be translated to "Cos'è" because they do not apply the three rules to use "qual è" that MABBY suggested, like his example.

September 18, 2018

We could maybe expand "cos'è" to include explanations as well as definitions. Like Berto said, we use "cos'è" when we don't know what something is. Think of it this way: with "quale," there is always an implied category of items, usually referenced in the rest of the sentence. If we look at your sentences, we can see this:

Qual è l'animale più comune?

Here the category is "animale" and we want to identify which specific one is the most common: Which (animal) is the most common animal?

Qual è la città più vicina?

Here the category is "città" and we want to know which is the closest: Which (city) is the closest?

Quali sono i colori della bandiera?

Here the category is "colori" and we want to know which specific ones are on the flag.

With a sentence like "What is it that you see?" you don't get a category, however. You don't have options to choose from. The same would go with a sentence like, "What is a cat?" You want an explanation or a definition, not to identify an option. In these cases you use "cos'è."

September 18, 2018

Thank you! I finally understand it completely :)

September 19, 2018
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