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For example, there is a sentence in the textbook Nuovo Progetto Italiano:

Osservate le due immagini e dite quali differenze esistono.

Can I use "cosa" instead here? Thank you!

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The main difference is that quale is an (interrogative) adjective, so it need a noun to which it refers (quale strada?, quali libri?...), while cosa – besides being a noun meaning “thing” – is a (interrogative) pronoun, so it stands in place of a noun, the object of the question: cosa vuoi? It's pretty much the same difference as between “which” (quale) and “what” (cosa).

You may also use che or che cosa, rather than cosa.

So, if you were to rephrase your example with cosa, you might want to say, for instance:

Osservate le due immagini e dite in (che) cosa differiscono

i.e., “...in what they differ”.

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No, you can't. Quali is an adjective, referring to the noun differenze, and both together refer to the verb esistono.

If you substitute quali with cose you have two nouns, cose e differenze, without a connection between them and to the verb.

You could use instead say, dropping differenze:

[...] e dite cosa è diverso (not fully correct)
[...] e dite che cosa è diverso (better)
[...] e dite quali cose sono diverse (also good)

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    Good, but cosa in the first sentence is not a noun, but an interrogative pronoun, and as such it is fully part of “correct”, modern Italian; it was largely used by Manzoni in his Promessi Sposi (see Serianni, VII.256). – DaG Aug 23 at 8:16
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    @dag Manzoni was also used to write things like "Facciamo un altro esempio che lo prendo direttamente da Google news" (from a comment of yours to this question: italian.stackexchange.com/questions/13192/…). About "recall", yes it is not the perfect word to use there. I'll change it. – linuxfan says Reinstate Monica Aug 23 at 9:41
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    If you don't have access to Serianni's book, you can also read this article from Treccani grammar. – Charo Aug 23 at 12:33
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    @charo your link describes cosa with "cosa, considerata dai grammatici una forma da evitarsi" ("regarded by grammaticians as a form to avoid"). I don't say to avoid it, I've just said that it is not fully correct, implying that something fully correct has no debates on it. – linuxfan says Reinstate Monica Aug 23 at 14:28
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    @linuxfansaysReinstateMonica: This is not what the article I mentioned really says. The grammarians you are referring to are from long time ago! By the way, I won't say the construction you mentioned is an anacoluthon. – Charo Aug 23 at 14:37

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