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I apologize if this has already been explained, I've searched both here and elsewhere online and can't find a clarification.

So far as I understand, both "che" and "quel" can mean "that" but they do not seem to be interchangeable.

Is "che" abstract while "quel/quella/etc." is concrete?

The example where I encountered this confusion was while trying to clarify if something I'd said was weird by asking (in Italian) "is that a strange thing to say?" In trying to find which form of "quel" would be appropriate (since I wasn't sure on the gender of the noun) I was told that none were and I should use "che." This is the entirety of what my guess is based on, I've really struggled to find any resource on this at all.

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That in English can be used for two different grammatical roles: relative pronoun and determiner. Let me give you examples:

  • Relative pronoun: This is used to introduce relative clauses, that is clauses that play the role of the subject or object of a different proposition. For example John is playing a song that his brother loved, I did not think that she would go there!. In this role that can sometimes be omitted or replaced by who, which or whom. If the relative clause is connected to the verb by a preposition (e.g. The person that we were speaking about is here) you need to translate it with cui instead.

  • Determiner: This is used to specify that you want to talk about that thing, not this one. For example I cannot stand that portrait! or That is a very good point. In this role it can often be replaced by this (sometimes with a slight change of meaning).

In Italian, che always plays the first role while quello (or sometimes ciò) is used to translate that when it plays the second role.

(Note: of course there are many more translations of that, sometimes it can be translated with questo instead, sometimes with something else entirely. This is just a short introduction).

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    +1, perfect answer. Let me just add to the note that sometimes the second-type “that” in Italian may disappear altogether and become an implied subject (or whatever). So, for the example by the OP, ”Is that a strange thing to say?” may become simply È una cosa strana da dire? (or Suona strano?). – DaG Dec 27 '16 at 9:57
  • So does that mean what I found originally was incorrect and my example sentence would use quello when translated? It seems to fit your second category. – Emmabee Dec 27 '16 at 10:31
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    @Emmabee: You're right! A literal translation of your sentence could be: "Quello è una cosa strana da dire?" But, as DaG has explained, it's more natural to express this sentence with the subject omitted. – Charo Dec 27 '16 at 10:57
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    @Emmabee I suspect they suggested you Che strana cosa da dire! which literally means What a strange thing to say! (it is a usage of "che" different from the relative pronoun I talked about). – Denis Nardin Dec 27 '16 at 12:52
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Denis gave a good explanation of that; on top of what he wrote I am giving a couple of more examples "John is playing a song that his brother loved" is translated "John suona una canzone che il fratello amava"

But "That song is wonderful..." is translated "Quella canzone è meravigliosa...".

In your specific case, "is that a strange thing to say?", thing (cosa) is feminine and the sentence can be translated with "non è una cosa strana da dire" or (although uncommon) "non è strana da dire questa/quella cosa?"

Che has many meanings and deserves a deeper look and is not the abstract version of quello/a.

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