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I know the following definitions of what and which.

what : asking for information specifying something
which : asking for information specifying one or more people or things from a definite set

But I can't understand why the author used both what and which in the sentence. If sports are thought of as an indefinite set, I think what is preferred. If not, which preferred.

If you ask someone to name three sports, most likely he or she will be able to answer with ease. After all, nearly everyone has an idea about what types of activities are regarded as sports and which are not. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous remark about pornography ― "I know it when I see it" ― most of us think we know what sports are. However, the line drawn between examples of sports, leisure, and play is not always clear. In fact, devising a definition that establishes clear and clean parameters around what types of activities should be included and excluded is relatively difficult to do. Activities that are regarded as play today may gain the status of sport in the future. For example, many people once played badminton in their backyards but this activity was hardly considered a sport. Since 1992, however, badminton has been an Olympic sport!

Sports: Why People Love Them!

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  • Working backwards, it would sound really bad to say ".. and WHAT are not." You absolutely need to say "which". As far as the first part of the sentence, I think "activities" is a sufficiently broad choice and you could use either "what" or "which" here, but I definitely think "which" sounds better so as to match the "and which are not."
    – cruthers
    Aug 26, 2021 at 4:02
  • The writer should have written, "After all, nearly everyone has an idea about which types of activities are regarded as sports and which are not."
    – Readin
    Aug 26, 2021 at 4:23

2 Answers 2

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It's not a juxtaposition what and which, but of what types and which. The implication is that certain types of activities (groups of activities with similar characteristics, for example ball games) can be considered sports, but the remainder don't have common characteristics and need to be considered individually. what types is the best way of referring to the groups, but which is the better term to use for the individuals.

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Good question that deals with an interesting edge case. The two comments here on your question are right: it would be better style to say "which types are and which are not" for the parallelism. This is because "what are not" is unacceptable, whereas "what types are" is okay. The speaker would have to know the end of his sentence in order to prepare the better parallelism, which is why it's hard to avoid this kind of mistake. (He could also have avoided it by concluding "and what types are not".)

There is much to say about this "what", though. Strictly speaking, the definitions you quote are right. The combination "which [noun]" is more formally accurate. However, it's very common and even more natural to say "what", especially in cases like this where it's before a genericizing word — not "what activities" but "what types of activities". The former sounds very colloquial compared to "which", the latter only a little.

It can also give rise to a difference in meaning. The "definite set" part of the definition comes into play here. If we walk by a fast food restaurant and I say,

I wonder what kind(s) of sandwiches they have.

In this case the realm of possible sandwiches is wide open. I might not even know this chain of restauarants and they might not even make sandwiches. I make no claims. But if I say,

I wonder which kind(s) of sandwiches they have.

This means that I believe there's a known set of sandwiches and they have a subset. In fact, where my mind goes with this presupposition is that the chain offers a range of sandwiches, and different locations offer different subsets. Not many other explanations make sense for my use of "which".

So if the writer had said "which types of activities", I might assume that they have some scheme in mind that they categorize activities. But this is much more compatible with the intended meaning than the sandwich case, so it would have been fine.

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