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Interrogatives (Interrogativi) are question words, like what, where, when and how. In Italian, as in English, interrogatives appear at the beginning of the question and are critical for building communication skills. This section is part vocabulary lesson and part a consideration of the syntax of questions (word order, agreement with adjectives, etc.). Read on.

Common interrogatives

Che cosa?
Chi? Who?
Dove? Where?
Come? How?
Perché? Why?
Quando? When?
Quanto/a/i/e? How much/many?
Quale/i? What? Which?

Preliminary observations:

    • There are three different pronouns meaning what? They are more or less interchangeable. Che is more informal. Che is also the only one of the three which can also function as an adjective meaning which? (see below).
    • Quanto and quale can function as adjectives or pronouns. Their ending depends upon the gender and number of the noun with which they appear (when they are adjectives) or which they replace (when they are pronouns). Have a look at the following examples:
      Quanto tempo ci vuole? How much time does it take? adjective w/ masc. sing. noun
      Quanta acqua bevi? How much water are you drinking? adjective w/ fem. sing. noun
      Quanti studenti ci sono in classe? How many students are there in class? adjective w/ masc. plural noun
      Hai invitato molte amiche! Quante vengono? You invited a lot of friends! How many are coming? pronoun, replacing fem. plural noun
      Quale corso preferisci questo semestre? Which course do you prefer this semester? adjective w/ masc. sing. noun
    • Che? in addition to meaning what as a pronoun, can also be used in replace of Quale? to mean which or what type. Che generally suggests an open-ended question (e.g. What type of wine do you like?) whereas quale generally suggests a choice: (e.g. Which do you prefer – red or white wine?) Unlike quale?, che? does not change its ending:
      Che giornale leggi? Which (what) newspaper are your reading?
      Che musica preferisci? Which (what) music do you like?
    • When differentiating between che and quale as pronouns, use che for definitions and quale for specification.
      Che è un pronome? What is a pronoun?
      Quali sono i pronomi formali in italiano? What are the formal pronouns in Italian?
    • Cosa, dove, and come often drop their final vowel when used with è (he/she/it is), and replace it with an apostrophe, for phonetic reasons (the sounds fit together more fluidly). The same is true with quanto and quale, but only when they are pronouns (ending in -o and -e respectively). In the case of quale, there is no apostrophe. Observe:
      Dov’è Roberto? Where is Robert?
      Qual è il tuo sport preferito? What’s your favorite sport?
      Com’è Laura? È simpatica? What’s Laura like? Is she nice?

Use with Prepositions

Prepositions are often combined with the interrogatives to form more complex questions. In English, we often end our questions with prepositions (though once this was considered improper grammar). In Italian, this is never done. The preposition always goes right before the interrogative. Have a look.

A che ora comincia la lezione? At what time does the class start?
Con chi vai al cinema? Who are you going to the movies with?
Per quale motivo hai deciso di studiare l’italiano? For what reason did you decide to study Italian?
Di che cosa parlate? What are you talking about?

Often, of course, you don’t need an interrogative word to ask a question. Think about yes/no questions. In English, we differentiate questions from statements by putting the verb in front of the noun (e.g. Are you going to the party?) or using the words do or does. (e.g. Do you study in the library often?). In Italian, these distinctions do not exist. Compare the following:

Tua madre è italiana. Your mother is Italian.
Tua madre è italiana? Is your mother Italian?

The statement and the question use the same words and even have the same word order. To distinguish the question from the statement, you must rely on intonation (make your voice rise toward the end of the question) or add on such words as vero, non è vero, giusto, si o no or no. For example:

Esci con noi, si o no? Are you going with us, yes or no?
Siete vecchi amici, giusto? You all are old friends, right?
Vuoi studiare in Italia, non è vero? You want to study in Italy, isn’t that the case?

A note about word order in questions: Generally, the subject in a question is placed at the beginning or at the end of the question. The second case (at the end) seems very strange to English speakers and often causes students confusion, but is extremely common. Be on the lookout for these cases.

subject at beginning subject at end translation
I tuoi genitori arrivano all’universita’ domani? Arrivano all’università domani i tuoi genitori? Are your parents arriving at the university tomorrow?
Maria viene alla festa? Viene alla festa Maria? Is Maria coming to the party?