WHICH vs. WHAT?
Question: When do I use “Which” and when “What” in questions?
Often problems arise when we directly translate word for word from one language into another. Sometimes this can work but many times it doesn’t.
Here we can see what happens when we directly translate from French or German into English. Let’s see which language gets us into more trouble!
= perfect translation
= maybe understandable but sounds unprofessional (some incorrect words and grammar used)
= not understandable (words and grammar completely wrong)
Let’s look at these examples:
a) What is your name?
German translation = Wie heissen Sie?
1) Wie = How 2) heissen=call or name 3) Sie = you
Word for word translation: How call you?
French translation = Quel est votre nom?
1) Quel = What 2) est = is 3) votre=your 4) nom= name
Word for word translation: What is your name?
b) What kind of car do you have?
German translation 1= Was für ein Auto hast du?
Word for word translation 1: What for a car have you?
German translation 2= Welches Auto hast du?
Word for word translation 2: Which car have you?
Note: “welches” = sometimes “which”; but not here.
French translation = Quel genre de voiture avez-vous? Word for word translation: What kind of car have you?
c) Which camera do you prefer – the Nikon or the Samsung?
German translation=Welche Kamera ziehen Sie vor – die Nikon oder Samsung?
Word for word translation: Which camera pull you ago – the Nikon or Samsung
French translation= Quel appareil photo préférez-vous – le Nikon ou le Samsung?
Word for word translation: What camera prefer you – the Nikon or the Samsung?
3 HELPFUL RULES Here are 3 rules for the 3 sample questions (a, b, c) to help you use “what” and “which” correctly.
What is your name?
Rule 1: When you have many possible answers but you have no idea what the answer could be, we ask with “What?” i.e. I don’t know your name, so I ask: “What is your name?”
What kind of car do you have?
Rule 2: We can use “what” together with + “kind of”. Here again, we use when we have no idea “what kind of” car. We use “kind of” to ask someone to describe the style.
What kind of car – this can be any kind or “style” of car. A race car, an elegant car, an inexpensive car. These are all kinds or styles of cars.
Which camera do you prefer – the Nikon or the Samsung?
Rule 3: We use “which” ONLY when there is a known choice available. There can be 2 or 10: the number of choices doesn’t matter. In short, we use “which” when we see or know specifically the different ones to choose from.
Situation: You are standing in front of a shop window and can see 5 cameras. You ask: “Which camera do you like”? The person replies by pointing “That one looks nice.” There is a limited number of choices and they can be seen.
Final Comments: So if you ask me, those who speak French win out here. Don’t you think?
If there are any errors in the French or German translations, please let me know. I am not completely fluent in French or German, but try my best! (Thanks to Monika Haenggi for correcting my German.)
Practice Exercise: Fill in the blank with “which” or “what”. (Answers provided below.
1. _________ time is it?
2. _________ meeting would you like to attend – the morning or afternoon one?
3. ________ did they say about your report? Did they like it?
4. Can you tell me _________ is the correct answer?
5. __________ contestant do you think will win?
Answers to Practice Exercise:
1. What 2. Which 3. What 4. Which or What (Which – if you can see the choices; What – if there are none to choose from) 5. Which (there are a number of contestants you have seen perform)