Translation:What is it?
"Che cos'è?" is the proper form, as "che" means "what", and "cosa" (thing) is just a reinforcement. "Cos'è?" is the popular shortening, that gets rid of the pronoun and keeps the reinforcement; "che è?" is rarely used, probably because of the difficulty of spelling both e's, and that's why some Italian dialects put a fictitious "di" in the middle ("che d'è?").
Well it would look so, but this is a trap. All the nouns ending in -ma that corrispond to an English -em(e), -m or -ma (problema, tema - problem, theme; diaframma = diaphragm; sintagma = syntagma) come from the Ancient Greek -μα (pron. ma) neuter suffix and have become masculine in Italian.
There are some (very rare) exceptions like flemma (phlegm, but it is feminine) and some other nouns that end in -ma but do not come from Greek words so they are regularly feminine (mamma, somma etc.).
Quest' is the form of the demonstrative adjective that goes before nouns starting with a vowel (as in this animal = quest'animale). Questa/o is the demonstrative pronoun (that is substitutes [pro] a noun, as in this [one] is the animal = questo è l'animale) which never elides before words starting in a vowel.
As a rule of thumb if the demonstrative is referring to the following word it elides, otherwise it doesn't.
From what I gather cosa also has a meaning of thing. So this would sort of translate to "what thing is?" now... in proper english it is not correct to call a person "thing". thus, the only option would be to call a thing a it as opposed to calling the thing a he or she.
These comments are leaving me with two conflicting interpretations of the phrase "Che cos'è?"
According to some commentors, in this sentence, "che" means "what" and "cosa" means "what", and so the sentence translates to "What is it?"
According to other commenters, in this sentence "che" means "what" and "cosa" means "thing", and so the sentence translates to "What thing is it?"
Would it be possible for someone with a solid understanding of Italian grammar to break the sentence down into its grammatical components?
As far as I can tell, the grammatical structure of the sentence would either be broken down as:
'Che (what, pronoun, subject), cos[a] (what, pronoun, subject [augmentative?]), è (is [it], verb, predicate)'
'Che (what, pronoun, subject), cos[a] (thing, noun, direct object), è (is [it], verb, predicate)'.
Thanks in advance!
Here's my two-cents' worth from a native English speaker who is an advanced learner of Italian and who has also spent a good deal of time in Italy. If a native speaker finds my comments incorrect, please don't hesitate to reply and correct me. Regarding Che cos'e: Italians are typically very economical in the way they express things in the spoken language; however, at the same time, there's a rhythm to Italian that almost demands that "extra" words be inserted into a sentence in order to maintain a natural rhythm and intonation. A good example is the combining of the 2nd person singular of avere, which is "hai" and placing in front of the verb form the direct object "lo" (for "it"). So, for example, if you wanted to ask an Italian "Do you have it?" I've never heard anyone in Italy look at another person and say "L'hai?" The correct question from my experience is "ce l'hai?" Some may disagree with me, but the word "ce" in this question doesn't really mean anything, but it allows the language to sound as it should. Back to "che" and "cosa," both of which mean "what?" and both of which are often used together, as in "Cosa fai?" ("What are you doing?") or "Che cosa fai?" (also "What are you doing?").
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: just because a word has more than one meaning doesn't mean you can use any of them interchangeably. Just think of the English "bow" (a weapon, a gesture and the front of a ship): greeting with a bow doesn't mean shooting you with an arrow (hopefully). "Che" / "che cosa" / "cosa" only mean "what" in questions; "che" can mean "who", "which" and "that" as a relative pronoun, and a bunch of other things (including "and") when correlating with other words.
wow i said ' i can think of'... i meant to say i can't think of an example. yeah che=and is an exception. actually, che doesn't really mean 'and' in the 'sia-che' phrase, it's just that in the english version of sia-che which is for example 'both good and bad' (sia bello che brutto) there's no other way to translate it so they say that che=and..but the real translation of sia-che is more like 'however much good (sia bello) - that much bad' (che brutto)..see here che=that. like 'however much of this one thing just as much of that other thing'.. 'sia questa cosa che quella cosa' in these translations 'che' doesn't mean 'and' but rather 'just as much' or 'equally to that' 'that too'... xD
Under the strength skills tab, the question "Che cos'è" comes up, to which I respond "What is it?" and get a "You are correct" response. Then when the phrase "What is it" comes up in English and I translate it as Che cos'è, I always get the response wrong because it says that the correct response is "Che cosa è?" Can't figure it out.