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“Which” vs. “what” — what's the difference and when should you use one or the other?

I know that, in the context of radio buttons (the options are limited and they choose one), I should use which. For example, Which is your favorite color?

( ) blue ( ) green ( ) red

I also suspect that for an unlimited text box, the correct option is what. For example, What is your favorite color? ________

My instinct tells me that the same is true for checkboxes. For example, What colors do you prefer?

[ ] blue [ ] green [ ] red

When they can select multiple answers, I should use What colors do you prefer?, not Which colors do you prefer?, right?

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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, JSBձոգչ, waiwai933 Aug 28 '12 at 6:02

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3 Answers

Which is used to choose from a list, contrasting what. Which can be used for multiple options. In your situation, which is correct. However, what is also correct, as once the options are presented, it is clear that the choice is to be made from among the list.

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I agree that which is preferable. What would only be logical if it were an open question, i.e. not multiple choice. –  shinyspoongod Jun 17 '12 at 4:37
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I feel the difference is only a matter of style. That said, I prefer which for multiple choice, though I may only choose one.

What is right on for the editText.

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FWIW, this may be a better fit on the User Experience site. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jun 15 '12 at 18:30
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In the real world it doesn't make sense to present a list of choices when asking someone's favourite (colour, song, food, whatever). There are many possibilities, and people have varied tastes; unless your list was exceptionally long, the actual "favourite" probably wouldn't even be in it.

As this Google NGram shows, the standard form is "What is your favorite color?" (it's the same pattern with British spelling). The word "which" occurs too rarely to graph in this construction.

But when you ask someone's preference, this is often in the context of a limited number of options. As this NGram shows, which and what occur equally often before ...color do you prefer?.

In short, what is standard with "open-ended" choices, but which always implies specific options...

"What do you want?" (really does normally imply you can answer with whatever you want).

"Which do you want?" (always implies your possible responses are limited in some way).

In OP's context, only what is correct for text input boxes. Where "multiple choice" possibilities are displayed, both which and what are acceptable - it's just a matter of stylistic choice.

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