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When I want to ask "what do you have for breakfast?", can I use any of the three, "che", "che cosa", or "cosa", to ask the question?

I'm not referring to specific structures like "che ore sono?".

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    I live in Tuscany, and agree with egreg, but here "che" is the most colloquial and "cosa" is less used. @Walter Tross (comment on egreg answer) I think "che vuoi?" assume different meaning depending on tone used to say it, but still a bit rude if you do not use for example with a friend. – Andrea May 28 '14 at 10:50
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In the example sentence you can use any of them; but

  • che, in my region, sounds strange alone in a question, but it is widely used in other parts of Italy (see later);
  • che cosa is “grammatically correct“ anywhere;
  • cosa is the most colloquial.

Some purists frown upon cosa, but since they should blame Alessandro Manzoni for the usage, they can't say it too loudly. See http://www.mauriziopistone.it/testi/discussioni/gramm04_cosa.html for cosa as interrogative pronoun in Manzoni and other examples.

Addressing somebody with Che vuoi per colazione? may cause raised eyebrows in some parts of Italy and sound formal. Not too formal, though. Conversely, Cosa vuoi per colazione may sound funny in the Che regions.

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    I basically agree, but what makes you consider che the “most formal” one? – DaG May 20 '14 at 13:22
  • @DaG Maybe I feel it so because of regional usage. Hearing someone here saying Che vuoi? is very uncommon. – egreg May 20 '14 at 13:45
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    Yes, perhaps it depends on different parts of Italy (I believe cosa prevails in the North, while che in Centre-South), and even on different sentences. Che c'è? or Che t'hanno detto a scuola? sound quite natural to me, not to mention (quite regional) expressions like Ma che ci avrai da ridere!? – DaG May 20 '14 at 14:35
  • @DaG Thanks for the remarks, I changed the answer accordingly. – egreg May 20 '14 at 14:45
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    Funny, che vuoi? sounds a bit harsh to my Roman ears, like "what the heck/... to you want", but, e.g., che prendi? (at the bar) does not. – Walter Tross May 25 '14 at 10:41

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