I just had an interesting conversation with a friend (non-native speaker of English, just like me) who was adamant that "which" can be used as an interrogative pronoun in constructions such as "Which is your favourite actor" and "Which is your worst fear", regardless of whether or not there is a predetermined, limited set to choose from. To me, this seems very odd, since throughout school and uni, I've been told that "which" can only be used when there is a limited set to choose from; otherwise I should use "what".

Of course, I had to delve deeper into this, so I checked Cambridge dictionaries, where I found the following passage:

We use both which and what to ask questions. We use which when there is a restricted range of answers. We use what more commonly when the range of answers is not restricted:

Which is the capital of Liberia? Monrovia or Greenville?

What’s the capital of Liberia?

This quote would seem to imply that whereas the rule I've learnt is essentially true, it's not set in stone – or am I misinterpreting?

In short: I'd like to have any native speaker's take on this!

  • 3
    “it's not set in stone” — Welcome to the English language :-)
    – gidds
    Sep 20 at 15:59
  • 1
    It strikes me as something I would find quite normal in Indian English (i.e., the dialect as spoken natively in urban centres like Bombay). Sep 22 at 3:57
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    "which X" is effectively short for something like "which of these Xs". "Which of these actors is your favourite?" sounds fine, right? In the same scenario where this question make sense, you can see that "which actor is your favourite?" sounds fine too.
    – ikegami
    Sep 22 at 8:28
  • @ikegami Yeah, that's in line with the rule I've learnt :)
    – Helen
    Sep 22 at 21:12

2 Answers 2


Yes the rule you have learnt is essentially true, and "Which is your favourite actor" is odd and unnatural, unless the context gives a restricted choice of actors (Which is your favourite actor? while showing a picture of three actors from which to choose)

Of course, the definition of "a limited, predetermined set" is somewhat vague. If you have a list of three actors then using "which" is certainly correct. But what about "Which is your favourite actor from the Harry Potter films?" (probably ok) or "Which is your favourite actor from the last 10 years?" (probably not okay). But I hope you can see that there is a "grey area".

  • 1
    And it’s worth noting that the restricted set can be implied. For example, if you’re talking about cars in general, “Which is your favourite model?” is unusual (you’d expect ‘what’) – but if you’re talking about Toyotas, it’s perfectly natural, because there’s an implicit restriction to the specific car models made by Toyota. Sep 21 at 10:41
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    Yes – I totally see that there's a grey area :) There's a difference between there being a grey area, and a situation where the rule is flexible for all situations though, the latter being what I had in mind when I posted my question – I should have been clearer about this though.
    – Helen
    Sep 21 at 21:16

I agree with James K but I'll note that in this particular example of choosing between people the most natural phrasing is "Who is your favourite actor?", regardless of whether there is a restricted set to choose from. "Which actor is your favourite?" would also be OK, but using "what" for people is definitely wrong.

Unless you are saying "What actor would refuse such a role?", but that question is really saying "What [kind of] actor would refuse such a role?" rather than looking for the name of a specific actor.

  • 1
    Mmm. My impression is that the animate/inanimate distinction has become more important in English over the last few centuries. For example, in the 1611 Authorised (King James) Bible, the Lord's Prayer starts “Our Father which art in heaven…” — but the ‘which’ sounds wrong to modern ears, and I think just about all later translations use ‘who’ (or phrase it without needing a relative pronoun at all).
    – gidds
    Sep 20 at 16:16
  • Haha, yes, you're absolutely right about the use of "what", of course!
    – Helen
    Sep 21 at 21:18

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