Italian Language Blog

Che or Il Quale? Posted by on Dec 9, 2009 in Grammar

A couple of readers have asked me recently to explain the difference between the pronomi relativi (relative pronouns) che and il quale / la quale (both meaning ‘who’, ‘which’, and ‘that’). Va bene, proviamoci!


This is the most common form of relative pronoun. It is invariabile (unchangeable), therefore it stays the same in the masculine, feminine, singular and plural form. It is used to refer to people (who, whom), and animals and objects (which or that). Here are some examples of how to use it: Ecco il libro che mi hai prestato (here it’s the book which you lent me); quello è il cane che ha morso mio fratello (that is the dog that bit my brother); quei tuoi amici che ho conosciuto ieri sembrano molto simpatici (those friends of yours whom I met yesterday seem very nice).

The relative pronoun che is only used with the grammatical function of subject or direct object: il libro che mi avevi prestato (‘che’ is the direct object); il cane che ha morso mio fratello (‘che’ is the subject); amici che ho conosciuto (‘che’ is the direct object).

However, when the relative pronoun che is preceded by a preposition (di, a, da, in, con, su, per, tra, fra) we use cui, which is also invariabile, e.g. Ecco il libro di cui ti ho parlato, (here’s the book that I told you about), la città in cui abito è molto pittoresca (the town in which I live is very picturesque), il signore a cui hai telefonato ieri ha richiamato stamattina (the man who you phoned yesterday called back this morning). N.B. It is important to remember that many verbs which don’t use the preposition ‘to’ in English always use it in Italian. For example we say: telefonare a qualcuno (literally: telephone to someone), dire a qualcuno (literally: tell to someone). I will cover this topic soon in another article.

When cui has the grammatical value of the genitive (complemento di specificazione) or, to put it more simply, it is equivalent to the English ‘whose’, it is used without a preposition, and is preceded instead by the definite article (il, la, i, le). E.g. Ho conosciuto una signora il cui marito lavora in Francia (I met a lady whose husband works in France); il Signor Rossi, la cui casa è di fronte al cinema, ha avuto un incidente (Mr Rossi, whose house is opposite the cinema, has had an accident).


Il quale

This type of relative pronoun is variabile (changeable), and is always preceded by the definite article, which indicates the gender and the number of the pronoun: il quale (masculine sing.), la quale (feminine sing.), i quali (masculine plur.), le quali (feminine plur.). This should not be confused with the interrogative adjective/pronoun qual?, quale?, quali? (which … ?) that is used without the article. The relative pronoun il quale can be used in any situation instead of che, e.g. quello è il cane che ha morso mio fratello or quello è il cane il quale ha morso mio fratello (that is the dog that bit my brother).  When it is preceded by a preposition it can be used instead of cui, e.g. il signore a cui hai telefonato ieri or il signore al quale hai telefonato ieri  (the man who you phoned yesterday), but il quale, la quale is more formal and is used mainly in written rather than spoken Italian.

Il quale, la quale etc. may, however, be preferable to che or cui when there is a risk of confusion about who, or what the sentence is referring to. For example, the sentence Stamattina ho incontrato il figlio di Giovanna che abita a Milano could mean either ‘This morning I met Giovanna’s son who lives in Milano’ or ‘This morning I met the son of Giovanna, who lives in Milano’, meaning that it is Giovanna who lives in Milano. In other words che can refer to either ‘il figlio’ or Giovanna. If, on the other hand, I say: ho incontrato il figlio di Giovanna il quale abita a Milano I make clear that it’s ‘il figlio’ who lives in Milano, whilst if I change the article preceding quale from il to la and say: ho incontrato il figlio di Giovanna la quale  abita a Milano it’s clear that it’s Giovanna who lives in Milano. However, in colloquial Italian we prefer to use ‘quello/quella/quelli/quelle che’ (literally ‘that one/those ones who’) instead of il quale or la quale, for example: questa mattina ho incontrato il figlio di Giovanna, quello che abita a Milano or, if I’m referring to Giovanna, ‘quella che abita a Milano’.


Un saluto a tutti quelli che mi hanno seguito fino a qui!

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  1. Melissa:

    Grazie! Molto chiaro!

  2. Sen:

    Grazie mille!

    The subject of Che is something I’ve always wondered about but don’t know where to find an answer.

    Thank you.


  3. Ted Taormina:

    Ciao Serena, Your blog on the relocation of your parents was wonderful. I enjoy
    these articles about your life, your town, the side trips you take. They are
    interesting and educational too. You never did let us know how you made out with
    the flooding rains a few weeks ago. The last we heard your husband was frantically
    digging drain ditches to divert the water from flooding the barn where you had
    stored some furniture. And what happened to the retaining wall? I save all of these
    articles and have a special section in my binder titled “Serena’s musings.” Please
    keep them coming. Thank you for so much enlightenment of the Italian language
    and the wonderful “tours” of the Tuscan countryside. I get so I can’t wait for the
    next episode. Best Regards, Ted Taormina

  4. Kate:

    Serena- Outstanding article on che, il quale, & cui. You give great examples and make topics that were heretofore murky, much more clear. Thanks very much for addressing this topic.

    Changing subjects, other than straight memorization, is there any standardization or rule on how to know which verbs are preceded/followed by which prepositions?


  5. Nathan:

    Ciao Serena,

    I was just listening to a little Jovanotti and thought that you might have some suggestions for us faithful readers on some other modern Italian musicians. I know you like to share the current culture of Italia with us. Most people in the US think “O Sole Mio” and “Finiculi, Finicula” are the only songs played in Italy. Just an idea.


  6. Serena:

    Ciao Kate, I’m glad you found this article useful. To answer your question about knowing which preposition to use, I’m afraid there’s no shortcut, they have to be memorized!

  7. Serena:

    Ciao Ted, sorry for the delay, and thank you for the compliments. We are fine. The flood didn’t do too much damage in the end, but when the retaining wall fell down it made a terrible mess. We have written a letter to the mayor asking him to send some technicians from the council to survey the wall because the water conduct that collects the rain water from the upper village, which is their responsibility, goes right underneath it and that is what caused it to collapse. However, we haven’t heard anything from them as yet. “Aspetta e spera” we say in Italian (wait and hope!). As for the ‘tours’, we haven’t had much of a chance lately because we’ve been busy with my parents’ move, and with helping them to settle down in Pontremoli. Then in the last few days we had about 30 cm of snow, there are a couple of photos of it in my latest blog –Indovinello Fotografico 3). My New Years resolution is to travel around Italy and catch up with friends and family.

    Auguri da Serena

  8. Serena:

    Ciao Nathan, thank you for the excellent idea. I’ll definitely write a series of blogs about contemporary Italian singers in the New Year. Me and my husband both like Jovanotti too, he’s a very inventive musician.

    Auguri e a presto.


  9. Lesley Brennan:

    Cara Serena

    I’ve just discovered your articles and your instruction on ‘che or il quale’ is so refreshingly clear and easy to understand.

    I’m now a fan.

    Buon natale e felice anno 2010.


  10. Jeannet Mulder:

    Salve Serena,

    I am a bit behind in following Italian lessons, but
    meanwhile I read questions and the responses on
    the misfortune in your direct regio about which me too I was curious, so this time I am up to date.
    I hope you will enjoy fine holidays.

    Zalig Kerstfeest! (Dutch)
    A tutti!

  11. misha:

    quale e la differenza tra “che” e “quale” nelle domande? per esempio. A che (a quale) piano abiti. Che (quale) libro leggi? ecc.

  12. Serena:

    Salve Misha, nelle domande ‘quale’ è usato all’interno di una scelta limitata e corrisponde all’inglese ‘which’, per esempio: “quale vino preferisci, bianco o rosso?”. ‘Che’ è usato quando non si pone un limite alla scelta. Perciò se la domanda è: “che libro leggi?” significa “what book are you reading” (implica che la scelta è fra tutti i libri del mondo), mentre se dico: “quale libro leggi?” signica “which book are you reading” (implica una scelta limitata, per esempio una lista di studio, o i libri qui sul tavolo ecc.). Tuttavia nell’italiano parlato molto spesso si usa ‘che’ al posto di ‘quale’, per cui è più corretto dire: ‘”a quale piano abiti” perché la scelta è limitata ai piani che ci sono nel palazzo, ma molto spesso la gente dice: “a che piano abiti?”. Spero di essere stata chiara.

    Auguri da Serena

  13. misha:

    Grazie mille Serena!

  14. Heather Sinclair:

    Una spiegazione fantastico,tra “che” e “quale” ! Questi tipi di parole sono il più difficile per me!

  15. john dauria:

    ciao e grazie

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