Grammar

Which Means: How to Use It

A word that we find in so many English sentences, we need to know when and where to use...

Hristina Yordanova Written by Hristina Yordanova · 6 min read >

A word that we find in so many English sentences, we need to know when and where to use “which”. One of its top uses is the example “which means”, *which* can cause problems for the English speaker. We’re going to explore this phrase, looking at where it’s found, its different forms and its meaning.

“Which means” used in a sentence

Firstly, where’s it found in a sentences? We must establish the word class of “which”: it’s a relative pronoun. We give it this name because it’s related to another noun in the sentence, be it a noun that’s previously mentioned in that sentence, or a noun that’s implied.

To begin, we should learn to make sentences where “which” refers to a noun that’s been mentioned, an explicit noun. As the Cambridge Dictionary correctly tells us, relative pronouns introduce a relative clause. But what’s a relative clause? If you have a simple sentence, such as “There’s the school“, and you want to extend the sentence to give more information, you can say “which has 2,000 students” and the new, longer sentence is a relative clause. In this example, “which” is related to “my school”. Check it out next to a second, different example:

  1. There’s the school which has 2,000 students.
  2. He’s unhappy which means we’re unhappy.

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What’s the difference? Well, in the second example, “which” is representing the entire clause “he’s unhappy”. The pronoun “that” is extremely dynamic as a word and can replace “who” or “which” when we want to define something like “there’s the school that has 2,000 students”, but we can’t use “that” in the second sentence to replace an entire clause. The Cambridge Dictionary says that replacing “which” with “that” in the first example will sacrifice formality.

The Writing Center explains how certain speakers think “that” is better for clauses like sentence 1. This sentence includes a restrictive relative clause, where the “which has 2,000 students” gives us more information to define the noun. Some speakers believe “that” is more appropriate than “which”, but both are technically accurate.

The Cambridge Dictionary also explains to us how “which” is the relative pronoun that we use for animals and things. This contrast with other relative pronouns, such as “who” which we use exclusively for talking about people.

  • He’s the man who stole the bread.
  • I like cameras which come with a stand.
  • I like cameras that come with a stand.

Now, what’s this other instance where we can have which refer to an implicit noun? This is most commonly seen in wh- question formation when “which” is related to an object outside of the question, either implied previously in the conversation of by other contextual queues. Here are some examples:

  • Which are yours?
  • Which do you like best?

Index finger touching or pointing something Vector Image

In both of these questions, “which” has no corresponding noun. The speaker could be referring to something mentioned like “I love my shoes“, “Which are yours?”. Or maybe someone is pointing at the pair of shoes as they ask the question.

A good what to simplify this, as highlighted again by The Cambridge Dictionary, uses “what” questions as a comparison. Questions beginning with “what” are open-ended versions of “which” questions, where the former have an unrestricted number of answers while the “which” questions are restricted by options presented by the speaker.

  • What song is best?

Any song in the world can be the answer.

  • Which song is best? Don’t Stop the Music or Funky Town?

Here, we can’t simply say “Which song is best?” with no other information.

So, that covers which and its different functions as a relative pronoun. Now, we must deal with “means”. The verb is used to explain the significance, or meaning, of something. To use a linguists’ vocabulary, we can say that “to mean” is used to translate one piece of information into a different interpretation.

  • Bonjour’ means ‘hello’.
  • The bell means it’s dinner time.

When we combine “means” with “which”, we get a phrase that offers an explanation.

  • The teacher is ill which means there’s no class.

There’s no class because the teacher is ill.

In examples such as this, the first clause “the teacher is ill” is translated as “there’s no class”. There’s also an omission of “that” in this sentence, which is very common in relative clauses where they act as an object. Have a look below, where the words are grouped into their functions.

  • “… which (subject) means (verb) that there’s no class (object)”

As “that there’s no class” is the object, we’re free to delete the “that”. However, this is entirely optional and you may want to keep “that” for stylistic reasons. Stylistic reasons are important, because it’s possible to have the following sentence.

  • More money means that that can be afforded.

But the double “that” does sound a bit strange, so let’s get rid of it an instead say:

  • More money means that can be afforded.
  • More money means we can afford that.

“Which means” or “which mean”

The English language can feel a bit daunting when someone says “It’s ‘Which mean‘, not ‘Which means‘”. You might be wondering why it matters when “which” seems to be a 3rd person pronoun so it needs that ‘-s’ in agreement. However, if you remember, we’ve learned how “which” corresponds with another noun, and the way we change the following verb (the conjugation) is determined by this corresponding noun. All sound a bit complicated? Let’s see some examples:

  • The symbols which mean “welcome” are on the sign.

The plural “symbols” are represented by “which”, so we need the 3rd person plural form “mean”.

  • A loud bark, which means the dog’s getting hungry, makes the house shake.

The singular “bark” is represented by “which”, so we need the 3rd person singular form “means”.

  • There’s so much rain which means that group of kids should come inside.

The entire clause “There’s so much rain” is represented by “which”, so we need the 3rd person singular form “means” by default.

These three examples demonstrate the different contexts in which we see “which mean(s)”. We get “mean”, with no “-s” verb agreement, in just one instance: where the expression extends a plural noun phrase. When we have a singular noun phrase, we use the singular verb form and when it needs to agree with an entire clause, the singular verb form is also the default.

What about “by which means”?

It’s possible that you’ve come across sentences containing the thee-word combo “by which means” and you may well have noticed that these sentences don’t exactly resemble the relative clauses that we’ve seen today. That would be for good reason, because the “by which means” actually contains the plural noun “means” rather than a form of the verb “to mean”, despite looking exactly the same… Confusing stuff! We need to look closer at some sentences to see the difference.

  • There’s bad language on the web which means teenagers learn it more easily.
  • In the coming days, the government decided by which means they’d tackle this problem.

The first sentence uses “which means” to form a relative clause, as we’ve already seen. The second sentence uses “by which means” as the object of the verb “decide”. That’s because “means” are a way that we do something, or resources.

  • The army used means of aggression to strike fear in their enemy.
  • I don’t have the means to live independently.

This expression gives us a second opportunity to see how “which” refers to something specific and restricted in quantity, while “what” is quite the opposite.

  • In the coming days, the government decided by which means they’d tackle this problem.

(They’ll use an online security company)

  • In the coming days, the government didn’t decide by what means they’d tackle this problem.

(They could use any of their unlimited options)

You can see that “by what means” gives no impression of the governments decision whereas “by which means” suggests that their decision has been made.

Synonyms and antonyms of “which means that”

Synonyms of this phrase are going to immensely improve your writing style, especially if you write pieces dealing with complicated information that needs explaining, they’re going to help you vary your language and help to avoid repetition. We can see a list of synonyms for “which means that” and use any of them alternatively. We’re going to take a look at the best of them, and the contexts in which they may be a good alternative.

In such a way that

  • He organized his drawer in such a way that he could easily find old outfits.

Try to use this phrase to connect clauses. That’s to say that it isn’t appropriate to replace “which means” when we’re describing a noun phrase, but it’s better for those longer sentences where we want to explain one clause with a second, as in the above sentence. Besides the grammatical function, “in such a way that” will work best when you want to put emphasis on a process, such as the organization of your clothes!

In order that

  • I’ve packed you your bags in order that you still leave before the end of the day.

This phrase is quit a formal alternative, the right option for use in professional contexts, but something like “so that” is good enough most other instances. The meaning here is “with the result that”, as specified by the Cambridge Dictionary, and it’s a best for this specific meaning whereas we get to use “which means that” to offer an explanation.

With the result that

  • The team conducted a search with the result that 5 international corruption scandals were found.

Again, this is similar to “in order that” and it’s used to connect clauses. This option puts the emphasis on the result, and it’s quite word-y so we’d tend to only employ it in longer pieces of writing, when we have the space and time to be so specific.

As a result of which

  • There had been several instances of teenagers vandalizing the local mall as a result of which the mall raised its security.

Similar in meaning to the previous two alternatives, “as a result of which” is much more formal, as is usually the case when we use relative pronouns in positions like this, away from the verb.

Whereby

A solution whereby participants could stay at home will be an asset to the company in the long-term.

Another formal option, “whereby” is best translated to “by which” and we can say it after a noun to explain some detail about it. In the above sentence, “whereby” explains the finer details of the solution, offering some clarity to the reader.

Which is why

I found better answers in the dictionary which is why I used it instead of the internet.

Finally, a great synonym for “which means” in the everyday context. This is noticeably less formal than most of the other examples on this list, because it’s quite difficult to avoid a certain level of formality when connecting clauses and offering explanations, as these are processes that are themselves synonymous with formal contexts. This is definitely the alternative that you’re most likely to hear in conversational language.

Concerning the antonyms, we don’t need a thesaurus, we just need to negate the clauses on one of the side. Check out the following sentences which will hopefully make things clearer.

  • The teacher’s here which means that we should go to class.
  • The teacher’s ill which means that we shouldn’t go to class.

You can see above how it’s not necessary to search for antonyms of “which means”, as we can work around it with other elements of the sentence.

That wraps up the phrase “which means”, so you hopefully now feel comfortable using it and any similar phrases.

Written by Hristina Yordanova
Hristina Yordanova has a Cambridge CPE certification in English and is now pursuing her International Journalism for Media Professionals at the Edinburgh Napier University. She regularly contributes to Cryptopolitan.com and EnglishForward.com from their inception. Her well-written perceptive articles have attracted a steady audience. Profile

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