Q&A: What or which?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're finding which/what answer will we arrive at…

Q: Hi AWC. My friend is having a “which” problem.

A: Well, that can happen around Halloween.

Q: No, not “witch” as in broomsticks.

A: Broomsticks? So Quidditch then?

Q: How are you not getting this? We’re having a written discussion!?

A: Okay, true. So, a problem with “which” you say. Which friend is this?

Q: Aha! That’s the problem!

A: That you only have one friend?

Q: No! When to use “which” and when to use “what” when asking questions.

A: Ahhhh. Interrogative pronouns.

Q: Um, yeah, ahem. Those.

A: It’s okay, we’ll explain them.

Q: Oh um, good. Not that I need to know. But, you know, for others.

A: Exactly. We use interrogative pronouns to ask questions. They’re very handy.

Q: I especially enjoy them.

A: Indeed. There are five of them – all starting with “wh”. The first three start with “WHO”.

Q: Pandemics also start with WHO…

A: No, not the World Health Organisation. We’re talking about ‘who’, ‘whom’ and ‘whose’ – they’re the interrogative pronouns used when asking about people.

Q: Okay.

A: The other two are of course “what” and “which”. We use these ones for non-human things such as objects or places or concepts and so on.

Q: Yes, but HOW do you choose which one to use?

A: You flip a coin.

Q: Seriously?

A: No, of course not. Luckily there is a pretty good rule. And it’s all to do with quantities.

Q: How DARE you! What does my elderly neighbour Mrs Kwan have to do with this?

A: No, you misunderstand. We’re talking about the number of options to choose from.

Q: Oh, okay. Right. Got it.

A: When there are a lot of options to choose from or you simply don’t know how many there are, we tend to cast the net wide with “what”. Meanwhile, “which” is reserved for times when the number of things is either known or finite. 

Q: Examples?

A: “What number am I thinking of?” vs “which hat suits me best?”.  “What flavour ice cream do you like?” vs “Which spoon do I use for eating ice cream?”. The options for “what” are usually large or unlimited, while the potential answers for “which” are typically smaller.

Q: But what about the grey areas?

A: I thought we weren’t talking about Mrs Kwan?

Q: No, I’m talking about sentences where both seem acceptable.

A: This is where it’s about awareness of choices. Using “what” doesn’t presume to know any of the possible answers, while “which” can indicate some knowledge of the options – often because they are provided. For example, “What is the longest river in the world?” vs “Which is the longest river in the world? The Nile or the Thames?” 

Q: Is the answer the Nile?

A: Um, yes. Well done.

Q: So what about “What date are you leaving?” vs “Which date are you leaving”. OR “What train are you catching home?” vs “Which train are you catching home?” Which word do you suggest using?

A: Nice use of “which” in your last sentence there, by the way. With these examples, we are stuck dealing with sets of large (yet finite) things such as dates or trains or times of day.

Q: So how do you solve it?

A: It’s still about awareness, but this time needs context. if you have no idea about the train timetable, you’d use “what”, as in, “What train are you catching home?” However, if the times had already been (or are about to be) established, you’d be using “which”. For example, “Which train are you catching home?” (The 5:45 or the 6pm?) Same thing with dates – if it’s a general query, “what” works. If the choices have been narrowed somehow (“the 4th or the 5th?”), “which” steps in. 

Q: And if you’re still not sure?

A: Then it’s unlikely anyone will care which one you use.

Q: So to recap, “what” is for shots in the dark or large numbers, while “which” is best for multi-choice or small numbers of things. Yeah?

A: That’s it.

Q: Okay thanks. I should go – have to pick up some hair dye for Mrs Kwan on my way home…

A: …Which brings us to what we call the end of our chat.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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