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Do I Use ‘Which’ or ‘What’? Which Vs. What!

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The Age Old Battle of Words - Which Vs What!

OK, so it’s not as dramatic as our title suggests but it is a very common question that we get asked and one that we regularly correct during editing and proofreading. Let’s get straight into it! 

We use the words ‘what’ and ‘which’ when asking questions, but actually what is the difference between the two?

  • ‘Which’ is an interrogative pronoun and we use it when asking for specific information.
  • ‘What’ is a pronoun and determiner and we use it when asking for information about actions and things.

What cake do you like?

Which cake do you like?

In this example both cases are correct as we are asking ‘what cake do you like to eat’  Our question allows for a large but limited number of responses. In other instances we would need to be more cautious about the wording used.

What are the Main Differences?

The main difference between ‘which’ or ‘what’ very much lies in the questions being asked and whether they are open ended or limited / closed. So when a question is open or wide-ranging we use ‘what’.

Here, ‘which’ would suggest a limited variety of choice. We could assume that the conversation prior has set out answers in the form of limited choices such as ‘fish and chips or burger and salad. If ‘what’ was used in this example then the answer is automatically opened up giving an unlimited set of possible options.

This can also be changed by asking a question with a restricted range of choices:

In this case ‘which’ is correct as the only answer to the question is to select right or left there are no other options.

It is also worth noting that ‘which’ is used before ‘of’ and ‘one’, as these words also suggest a limited number of potential responses.  A great example of this would be:

If you are asking to stipulate one choice out of a limited number of possible answers, you should always use ‘which’.

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To Conclude:

So to summarise; ‘what’ and ‘which’ can be used in questions when asking for information that specifies something.

The general rule when a question is asked that is open to many different answers and options, it is better to use ‘what’.

For instance, ‘What shall I wear today? This would imply an open question with a numerous range of responses with not just a few options.

When a question is asked where there is a limited number of choices it is better to use ‘which’. An example of this would be when referring to a chocolate bar ‘Which one do you want? because the answer requires a specific choice either chocolate bar A or B.

  • “What” is for lots of possibilities
  • “Which” is for fewer possibilities

When deciding whether to use “what” or “which,” the most important thing is to keep in mind the subtle implications that your reader or listener will make based on the word you choose. 

When you understand how to properly employ “what” and “which,” you will be able to communicate yourself clearly when people read between the lines.

We hope you this has helped you to understand the difference between the words ‘which’ and ‘what’ and where to use the words in any given scenario.

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