Whichever or Whatever: Understanding Differences and Usage

The terms “whichever” and “whatever” may look and sound similar, and you’d be forgiven for believing that they are interchangeable, however, the meaning of these terms is considerably different, and there are specific use cases for each.

“Whatever” indicates that it can be any item or items at all. “Whichever” is more restrictive, indicating any specific item or items in a group. Many also use “whatever” colloquially as a way to dismiss someone who said something they disagree with. When we add the adverb “ever,” indicating any time or any way, to words like “which” and “what,” we alter their meaning.

The difference in meaning between the two terms becomes clearer when we consider what part of speech they are. They can function as determiners, pronouns, or interjections, and this article will take a closer look at exactly how to use both terms in each context.

The Difference between Whichever and Whatever

The baseline difference between the words “whichever” and “whatever” is that “whichever” refers to a specific item or thing and “whatever” does not.

When we use “whichever,” we speak about something very specific, but if you use“whatever,” you can mean anything at all.

The word “whatever” also has more colloquial and slang applications, meaning many use it informally in many situations, where “whichever” does not. 

In slang or colloquial terms, the word “whatever” usually implies that the speaker doesn’t care about either the conversation, the topic, the outcome of the discussion, or what the discussion is about in general. 

Using the two terms correctly when speaking and writing can make you look and sound more like a native English speaker as it is fairly easy to confuse them, although they have such distinct meanings.

What Ever vs. Which Ever

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Originally, the words “whichever” and “whatever” were applied together as two separate words. However, nowadays, they are very rarely written as separate words.

The correct way to write both “whichever” and “whatever” is as one word, particularly in the instances described above when they function as pronouns, adjectives, interjections, or determiners.

But, something different happens when we split the “what” and “ever” of  “whatever.” 

What Ever

The single word “whatever” can be used in various ways and generally refers to something nonspecific or indicates that the speaker either doesn’t care about a choice or has no further interest in a discussion or topic.

When written as two separate words, the words “what ever” take on a slightly different meaning.

It is most often used this way when asking a question. You will start the question with the two words “what ever” and the emphasis will be placed on the “ever.” For example:

What ever happened to Melanie? 

What ever did I do to deserve such a wonderful husband?

In these sentences, the speaker cares about the topic and the discussion, and the words are written separately to emphasize the “ever.”

Try it now. Say each sentence and emphasize “ever,” meaning say it louder and more forcefully than the other words in the sentence. Now, try it without the emphasis. Do you hear the difference? 

When you split “what” and “ever,” the conversation’s tone becomes more concerned and indicates that the speaker really does care about the answer.

Whichever or Whatever Parts of Speech

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The terms “whichever” and “whatever” can each function as several parts of speech. As determiners, pronouns, adjectives, and interjections, each means something very specific and, as such, we shouldn’t attempt to use them interchangeably.

Determiners

A determiner is a grammatical unit that helps provide additional information about a certain noun. A determiner functions in much the same way that an adjective does in that it offers additional information relating to quantity, proximity, and relationship to the noun (source).  

As a determiner, the word “whichever” refers to a specific number or item in a group. For example:

You may choose whichever puppy you like best.

In the sentence above, the determiner “whichever” refers to the group of puppies and indicates that “you” may choose a particular one that you like best out of all of them. It is much more specific.

As a determiner, the word “whatever” means any one item or number in a group; it doesn’t matter which one, if any at all. It can be hypothetical or actual. For example:

The ability to magnify whatever is in front of it is the basic function of a microscope.

The word “whatever” in the sentence above refers to any unknown item that someone can place under the microscope. This is far less specific.

Pronouns

A pronoun is a grammatical term for the word that stands in place of a noun. Therefore, the words “he,” “she,” “it,” and “we” are all pronouns. Both “whichever” and “whatever” can function as pronouns. 

As a pronoun, “whichever” functions in the same way it does as a determiner in that it refers to a specific number or item in a group, whereas “whatever” means that the speaker does not care about their options. For example:

Choose a puppy, whichever you want!

In this sentence, the noun is still the puppy, but “whichever” now functions as a pronoun. 

Put whatever under the microscope, and it will magnify it for you.

In this sentence, “whatever” is a pronoun, and it indicates that the speaker doesn’t care what they place under the microscope. 

Interjections and Adjectives

Adjectives are words that describe nouns, and both “whichever” and “whatever” can function as adjectives. An interjection is a short, sharp word often functioning on its own or as an interruption. 

The word “whichever” doesn’t often function as either an interjection or adjective, although it can. As an adjective, it will still refer to a specific item or number in a group of things, though:

She may choose to go to whichever party she likes.

Here, we use “whichever” to describe the noun “party,” thereby making it an adjective, and it indicates that “she” will choose one specific party.

The word “whatever” when functioning as an adjective means that something is nonspecific or unimportant.

She won’t go to the party for whatever reason. 

In this sentence, the “whatever” describes the “reason,” and it means that the reason is nonspecific and unimportant. The fact of the matter is that “she” won’t be going to the party. As an adjective, the word “whatever” functions here very much informally. 

Additionally, as an interjection, the word “whatever” is a colloquial term, which means that it is not considered formal speech. It is often used when a speaker has no further interest in continuing a conversation. Consider the exchange below:

Person A: Do you want to go to the movies with Sarah tomorrow?

Person B: No. I don’t like Sarah. She made fun of me.

Person A: You can’t run away from her forever.

Person B: Whatever.

The abrupt “whatever” used by Person B in the exchange above indicates that they have no further interest in continuing this discussion. 

Testing for Each Term

As second-language speakers, it can often be confusing to know when to use either “whichever” or “whatever.” Fortunately, there is an easy test that you can do to determine which one you should use.

As the term “whichever” refers to a specific item or number in a group and “whatever” means that it can be any number or item in a group, or a nonspecific thing, you can test when to use which term by simply looking at what they describe. 

If it comes before a noun like “day” or “puppies” or “classes,” it is most likely “whichever.” If what is being described cannot be named, it is most likely “whatever.” Look at the table below for some examples of this test in action.

SentenceTestCorrect Choice
You can come on whichever/whatever day you want.The word “day” indicates that “you” can come on a specific day, so we use “whichever.”You can come on whichever day you want.
You can choose whichever/whatever puppy you like.There are a certain number of “puppies,” and “you” can choose a specific one, so we use “whichever.”You can choose whichever puppy you like. 
I will do whichever/whatever it takes.There is no specific action that “I” may take; it can be anything, so we will use “whatever.” I will do whatever it takes.
Go get your bag and whichever/whatever else you need.There is no indication of any specific item/group discussed, as they could be getting anything else, so we will use “whatever.”Go get your bag and whatever else you need. 

Changing the Meaning

As we’ve already discussed, we change the meaning of the words “what” and “which” when we add the word “ever.” 

WordMeaning
WhichRequesting information specifying one or more people or things from a set or group.
WhatRequesting general information.
WhicheverIt does not matter which — any one at all.
WhateverIt does not matter what — anything at all.

The words “what” and “which” may seem confusing here as well, and second-language speakers will be forgiven for thinking that they, too, are interchangeable, but they are not.

The difference between what and which may be subtle, but it is just as important as the difference between our terms “whatever” and “whichever.” 

Here are some example sentences illustrating the difference between “whichever” and “whatever” as per the table above and earlier explanations in this article.

Please take whatever you want from the fridge. Anything at all.

Please take whichever sandwich you like Any one of the sandwiches.

Come visit me at whatever time you like on Sunday Any time at all.

Choose whichever day suits you best for the meeting Any specific day.

Ever-Related Terms

In this article, you may have noticed that some other compound words look similar to “whichever” and “whatever.” No? Well, how about “however”?

The related terms will function in much the same way as both “whichever” and “whatever,” and the reason for this is they are also constructed by adding the word “ever” to words that start with wh-.

So, words like “who,” “where,” “when,” and the related “how.” Look at how they change in the table below:

WordMeaning
WhoAsking for information about a specific person.
WhereAsking for information about a specific place.
WhenAsking for information about a specific time.
HowAsking for information regarding the manner in which something is done.
WhoeverAny person at all;It does not matter who.
WhereverAny place at all;It does not matter where.
WheneverAny time at all;It does not matter when.
HoweverAny way at all;It does not matter how.

Do you see how the meanings change? It is fairly easy to understand each word’s meaning when you place the words “it does not matter” in front of the word that is being altered. This can help you understand when to use each term. 

There are various ways to use “whichever,” “whatever,” and their related terms.

It is in the best interest of any second-language student studying English to invest in top-quality study aids to help you understand the nuanced differences of similar-looking terms.

The Oxford New Essential Dictionary and Dreyer’s style guide are two aids that can help you immensely on your quest to conquer English, and they’re both available on Amazon. 

Final Thoughts

The words “whichever” and “whatever” may look similar, but they have very different meanings. The term “whichever” refers to a specific item or number in a group, whereas “whatever” indicates that something is nonspecific. 

Both terms can function as pronouns, adjectives, interjections, and determiners, and this often helps make the meaning of each clear.

You can test when to use each term by asking yourself whether you can identify something specific being discussed, in which case, you’ll use “whichever.”

Additionally, the words “whichever” and “whatever” are almost always written as one word, but we may split “whatever” into two words to emphasize a question if it is used to start the question.

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