How to Say “What are you doing?” in Italian (Che cosa stai facendo?)

If you want to ask someone what they are doing in Italian, you can pose the question in the following manner:

Che cosa stai facendo?

What are you doing?


cover image with the phrase and its translation written on a notepad

Let’s take a look at each element that makes up this phrase:

che

is a pronoun that translates as what in English.

cosa

is a noun that means thing. Che + cosa literally means “what thing”.

stai
facendo

is the gerund tense, or in other words, the equivalent of the English -ing.

In this case the gerund is formed by combining the verb stare (to be / stay) in its conjugated form (so in this case stai = you are) and a verb stem (in this case the verb fare = to do) ending in -endo or -ando. Because fare is irregular, its stem is fac- rather than far-.

A woman standing on a chair, looking over the garden wall.
Che cosa stanno facendo i vicini di casa? = What are the neighbours doing?

Curiously, in informal Italian, it is possible to drop either che or cosa without changing the meaning of the sentence. In the north, they tend to keep cosa and leave out che whereas in the south, the opposite is true.

Che stai facendo?

What are you doing?


Cosa stai facendo?

What are you doing?


Of course, you can also pose this question by using the present tense rather than the gerund. In English, this would sound very strange, as we only ever use What do you do? to inquire about a person’s habits or daily routine, but in Italian, it is perfectly natural – perhaps even more natural than the gerund form. The present tense version of this question is as follows:

Che cosa fai?
(Che fai? Cosa fai?)

What are you doing?


cropped view of woman holding placard with question mark near brick wall
Che cosa stai facendo?What are you doing?

The difference between ‘Che cosa stai facendo?’ and ‘Che cosa fai?’

There is a subtle difference between Che cosa stai facendo? and Che cosa fai? even though they both translate as What are you doing?

The latter has a much broader meaning. It can be used to inquire about (1) a person’s activities at that very point in time, (2) their plans for a set period of time (e.g. a day or week), or (3) what they do out of habit or as a routine. For example:

  1. Che cosa fai ora? = What are you doing now?
  2. Che cosa fai di bello oggi? = What (nice things) are you doing today?
  3. Che cosa fai di lavoro? = What do you do for a living?

Che cosa stai facendo?, on the other hand, can only be used to inquire about an activity that the person is carrying out in that specific moment.

  • Che cosa stai facendo ora? = What are you doing now (in this precise moment)?
  • Che cosa stai facendo con quel martello?! Mettilo giù subito! = What are you doing with that hammer?! Put it down now!

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