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There's an expression "distinction without difference", which I like to use on (an appropriate) occasion. Today, I got a brain fart and misspoke, turning the words in the opposite order by saying "difference without distinction".

I've been made aware of it and agreed with the correction. However, I added afterwards that it was, indeed, a great example of a distinction without a difference and the person shouldn't get hung up on it.

Was I correct? Or does the alternative order bear a different connotation?

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  • The concept of "correct" isn't really appropriate here. Semantically, both sequences are identical (there is no difference; it's just as much a difference without a distinction as a distinction without difference). And here's the evidence that difference without a distinction has been written many many times - it's just less common. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:19
  • @FumbleFingers I'm not sure if I see the evidence the same way. When I compared the frequencies, it seemed like diff-first was a couple of magnitudes higher than dist-first alternative (both being rather low in ratio though). Please point out what I may be missing there. Also, I really liked jackoflaherty's excellent reasoning on the subject, which would argue that those two aren't interchangeable. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:39
  • If the "meanings" really were different, either difference without [a] distinction would never occur, OR it would be easy to establish how that version differs from distinction without difference. People can make up all the post-hoc justifications they like, but at the end of the day this is just a context where one sequence got idiomatically established. You might as well ask why no-one ever drives horses and a coach through an unsound argument (always a coach and horses). Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:49
  • You may find it useful to note that the "single-word" version of exactly the same context occurs equally often with both terms. Despite the fact that a difference is more than twice as common as a distinction, the negated versions a non-difference and a non-distinction are equally common. But to suggest they might mean different things seems ludicrous to me in most contexts. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:56
  • @FumbleFingers I'm not sure if I agree with your argument. The meanings might be different and still occur, due to ever-changing nature of the language and/or regional/cultural deviations. Nothing says that such a difference isn't easy to establish. We only know that the people gathered here are having trouble establishing said difference. It might be because there isn't one, of course. But, humbly seen, it might be due to our collective incompetence. You know, we can do it and it cannot be done - there's a distinction and a difference. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 12:10

5 Answers 5

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I find the two phrases different, so I distinguish between them.

When a difference is recognized, we have distinguished one thing from another, and a distinction has been made.

A distinction without a difference is a false distinction.

A difference without a distinction is a difference that has not been recognized.

Whether that distinction is recognized in common usage is another question.

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  • I'd like to verify that I got your motivation correctly. A distinction is a stated claim of a deviation between two entities. A difference is an actually existing inequivalency between two entities. Hence, it's possible to claim a distinction while it's not really there (in a relevant sense) due to confusion, dishonesty and such. But it's not feasible to claim a difference, yet deny any distinguishability (including the one based on the admitted difference). Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:22
  • BTW, the downvote isn't mine. I just voted you up. It was a great and rewarding answer. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:23
  • Yes, if one claims a difference, one has distinguished! (And thank you.) Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 18:09
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I think people tend to use it alternatively sometimes:

I am tempted to talk about angels on pins because there may be a splitting of distinctions between veterinary medicine and animal foodstuffs, but that may be a difference without distinction or vice versa (!) which is being made here. (Hansard)

(the ! is mine)

You are definitely not the only one hesitating as to which order is correct.

But you can't go too wrong if you check GNgram: clearly prefers distinction without difference.

Also, when I tried to google difference without distinction, the engine automatically changed it to distinction without difference.

EDIT: This link might really help in making the difference between the two:

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “a distinction without a difference.” Debaters often fall back on employing this logical fallacy when confronted with an argument they wish to evade. Politicians and marketers call it “reframing the argument.” People who have read too many books might be tempted to call it “sophistry.” Normal people simply call it “misleading.” We can all agree “a distinction without a difference” is something we want to avoid being accused of using. But what about “a difference without a distinction”? I’ll use the example of cholesterol. I don’t know about you, but ever since I could remember, I was told “cholesterol is bad.” Then, one day during a routine check-up, I learned there was such a thing as “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol.

The fact they were both called “cholesterol” meant there was a difference without a distinction.

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  • Well, Google suggesting something is just a sign of people's arbitrary searches and can't be trusted (there's a funny example with great French victories). The GNgram source is much more reliable, though. It also aligns with the great motivation by @jackoflaherty above. I believe the confusion might be due to (mine) ignorance of the actual (nerd'ly fundamental) meaning of the terms. Like when people say absolutely, unless X happens. Well, absolutely means with no exception, so... But people use the word in an intuitively inferred sense, just like in this case, maybe. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:31
  • Oh, funny thing, I just noticed. Your claim that I'm not the only one hesitating which order is correct is possibly wrong. Well, it could be right, but the link motivating it is irrelevant. (I'm trying to sound obnoxious in a jokingly way here. Hint: check the poster of the question you linked to. I might be the only one hesitating on this subjects, mate...) Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:34
  • Oh dear, that's so funny!!! Sorry I didn't notice the author of that post was you! So so funny. I guess I won't edit my answer, it will put a smile on others' faces :-)
    – fev
    Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:36
  • Actually, I didn't notice it neither until I tried to upvote it (as I found it interesting and witty). I suggest you keep your answer and the comments for the future generation. I too pull up my smiley corners towards the ears when I see it. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:42
  • Will provide, however, link1 and link2.
    – fev
    Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:51
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A "distinction without a difference" is using two different names, terms, or descriptions for the same thing. It may imp0ly treating teo essentially identical situations differently, depending on which name one applies.

A "difference without a distinction" is just the reverse, applying the same name, term, or description for two different things. This may be a result of underprecision, as when a person calls both mice and rats "rodents" without taking note of the difference between themOr when soemoen calls both a paintiong anf a photograph a "picture" without noting the difference between them. Or it may be a simple error, as calling an elementary school a "university" would be.

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I'm quite late to this game, but I have a different take than both Konrad (OP), who doesn't think one can distinguish between the two variations, and that of the most cited response, by Jack O'Flaherty, who does.

The two words are primarily synonyms, so in that sense, Konrad is correct. However, they can be used in other, related ways, and that's important here. For example:

  1. Difference in math is the result of subtraction, but arises from its core language meaning
  2. Difference (usually plural) can refer to disagreement - "put aside your difefrences" - and is once again derived from its core meaning
  3. Distinct is used as special notice or praise - "he stands distinct from everyone else," or, "he served with distinction." The latter is often used interchangeably with distinguish - "he had a distinguished career."

I believe the latter point is driving this phrase. Distinction is used to call out something special, or unusal. If something is distinct, it stands out. Used this way, when a difference makes something stand out, it attains distinction. But a difference between several things that doesn't make one stand out from all others (at least in context), has not attained distinction.

With that in mind, the phrase is a perfect pithy way to describe this concept. An attribute that can be used to identify one things from another is always a difference. When that differentiation is worthy of notice, it has distinction. But the difference that is not worthy of notice is without distinction. Hence, a difference without a distinction.

And, my explanation is distinct from Mr. O'flaherty's. He is focused on the meaing of distinct as "readily distinguished from something else." But I understand that to simply mean that is a easily noticed difference, but not necessarily one that matters, i.e., is worthy of note.

I should note, that without knowing the original use of the term, it impossible to know whether its author had these nuances in mind. If not, then as originally used, Konrad is correct, as tehy are merely synonyms in their simple meaning. But even so, I'm fairly certain that at least subconsciously, most people "feel" this subtlety between the words when using this phrase, in which case, it remains important and only one usage remains correct.

There's a nice write-up along these lines at this page.

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I hope you don't LIKE to use "a distinction without a difference." It is very snarky and a cliché. It will make people angry if applied to their arguments.

Sometimes you might have to make this point. I try to be very diplomatic. I might say, "Some people distinguish between A and B, but in practice, they're functionally identical" (or interchangeable.) That way, you are not making the "some people" wrong.

A difference without a distinction is not a thing at all. It is better to avoid it, unless you want to sound ignorant.

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  • Actually, I do like to use that expression and I quite enjoy it. Now, I see your point regarding snarkyness and I agree with you. Rest assured that the snarkification of my attitude is only done when such is appropriate and well-needed based on the obvious and intentional attempt by the speaker to derail and sabotage a conversation. I have a FUQ on the last remark of yours, though. What makes you say that it sounds dumb to turn the order of the terms in the expression? I couldn't figure it out by myself, regrettably. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:03
  • For the record, I didn't downvote your answer. Not sure who did and I noticed that other answers that were, in my opinion good, also got bashed. Possibly, someone having a bad day. :) Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 11:24
  • I'm the one downvoting answers that claim a semantic distinction based on which way round the two terms are presented. You've only got to glance at earlier words spoken by Lord Clement-Jones in the British House of Lords to see that he's obviously very "well-spoken". And he explicitly equates the two forms, saying that may be a difference without distinction or vice versa. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 13:41
  • ...and lest anyone think that's just a UK perspective, here's an example from the equally "prestigious" US Congress: maybe it has a difference without a distinction or vice versa. Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 13:44
  • @FumbleFingers Interesting subject. It appears to me that there's the strict interpretation (represented by you) referring to the interchangeability of the terms. On the other hand there seems to be an intuitively supported consensus on the opposite. It might be the case where a strict correctness of few stands against a wave of numerous alternative uses. In practice, it's usually the latter that wins. (Which on occasion makes my blood boil - your stupider then me, instead of you're more stupid than I am). Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 13:22

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