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(1) He likes to collect differently coloured socks.

(2) He likes to collect different coloured socks.

Most of my non-native English speaking friends think (1) is correct and (2) is wrong. I don't agree with them. I have seen "different coloured" something used a lot on the internet.

Is (2) really wrong?

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    One issue at play here may be a general prohibition against flat adverbs, which is apparently another "rule" which made it into the books due to fussy 19th century prescriptivists, but doesn't necessarily reflect how native speakers actually use English.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 13:38
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    Unusual distinction here, which shows more with the verb "wear" than "collect". If I say "He likes to wear different colored socks", then that means the sock on his left foot does not match the one on his right. If I say "He likes to wear differently colored socks", the socks may or may not match, but they are unusually colored. It kind of makes no difference with "collect". This may be a rather subjective interpretation though. Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 17:45
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    To further clarify, in the first case it's a matter of his socks being different from each other. In the latter case, its that his socks are different from everybody else's. Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 17:55
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    No. The first is wrong IMHO. "different coloured" is just a compound adjective which modifies the noun "socks". The confusion here may be caused by thinking the word "coloured" is a verb, but it isn't being used as a verb here. It's an adjective. The verb in the sentence is "collects". Adverbs modify verbs. Adjectives modify nouns.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 19:19
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    I would say that the first option is "proper English", and the second is "commonly-used" English. Your ESL friends probably had "proper" drilled into them very recently by a teacher, violations punished with poor grades, as opposed to just speaking the "improper" English that the EFLs have been for years without really thinking about it, or being penalized for in our own "English" classes which tend to focus more on literature than actually speaking the language according to its own supposed rules.
    – Sammitch
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 22:09

4 Answers 4

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In "differently coloured", coloured appears to be the past participle of a verb: socks that have been coloured in different ways.

In "different-coloured", we're attributing a type of colour to the socks. Compare "two-faced" or "bow-legged" or "flat-footed". A flat-footed person has flat feet, and different-coloured socks have different colours.

Hence, we're much more likely to say "different-coloured", because people don't colour their socks, but the socks' colours are different.


Also note Michael's comment about "odd socks". Here in North America we would say "mismatched socks" or change the structure entirely and say "your socks don't match". When asked to clarify, we might say "different-coloured socks". However, socks can also have different patterns and designs and the phrase "different-coloured" wouldn't be used if the socks differed in some respect other than colour.


A note on the hyphen. While punctuation is pure convention and not really a linguistic system, the convention is to use a hyphen for compound adjectives and no hyphen for a series of adjectives. I've used it above because "different" modifies "coloured". Whereas:

— Do you like the taste of bottled water?
— There are lots of different bottled waters. I like some and dislike others.

Here the lack of a hyphen after "different" allows us to interpret "bottled water" as a unit and to say that there are lots of different types of this category.

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    In the UK if someone is wearing differently coloured, patterned, etc socks, we usually say they are wearing 'odd socks'. Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 6:19
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    Agree, except that "differently coloured socks" doesn't mean the owner coloured them. It just means socks that have been coloured (by some unknown person) different colours. It doesn't mean the owner coloured their own socks. Both are natural to me.
    – gotube
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 12:46
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    While I would use the hyphen in "different-coloured" the same as you, a growing minority of writes will use a space instead (use of hyphen in English is slowly declining). I thought that North Americans spell "coloured" without the U - or is that only USAns? Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 12:56
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    @costrom Good point, in the sense of "unusual, peculiar" (sense 4 here). Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 16:00
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    +1 for correct — and, more importantly, helpful — use of hyphens! (Whether the hyphen is declining in English or not, it still makes text that bit easier to follow by removing potential ambiguities.)
    – gidds
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 18:34
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To my ear (Midwestern USA), saying two things are "different colored" would imply that the colors are qualitatively different, while saying "differently colored" would imply something more subtle. Patches taken from a piece of green batik fabric and a piece red batik fabric would be "different colored". Multiple patches taken from a piece of green batik fabric, unless carefully chosen to match, would be "differently colored".

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    Excellent observation. Additionally, if one identical image was colored with crayon and another identical image was water-painted, we might say they were colored differently, with color functioning as a verb.
    – EllieK
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 12:11
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    @EllieK: As a point of clarification (not sure if it merits being part of the answer): I think some people may use "differently colored" to describe the red and blue fabric, but that usage would come across as quirky. If the hues of the green patches were sufficiently different that someone didn't recognize them as the same fabric, they may be "different colored", but if they differed in lightness or saturation someone who didn't recognize them as the same fabric might describe as "differently shaded" (not different shaded).
    – supercat
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 14:55
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    @EllieK: Amplifying your example, there are many situations where an adverb+participle combination may appear in either order, but the meaning is shifted by the order chosen. My favorite example: "He was worried the mid-rare steak might be undercooked, but it was (done well/well done)".
    – supercat
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 15:13
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I live in middle-ish America and here, if I were to ask several people, I can pretty much guarantee this reaction: they may recognize that differently may be technically correct but they simply don't say it that way.

Even most people with college or graduate educations who both know better and value correctness, routinely abuse the language in this way. Other common violations are grocer's commas and improper (or missing) hyphenation. I've had things I've written edited by professional editors who have not only gotten things like this incorrect, but even suggested breaking my previously correct writing.

If you're asking what's correct, you seem to have the answer in the asking. I do not argue the references or subtleties suggested in other answers, nor do I claim representation for any group other than normal Americans. If you're asking what's common, and therefore what you may see on the Internet or hear out at the bar on a Friday night, normal Americans all say, different colored socks.

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    Not only that, we might even drop the "colored" and just say "wearing different socks."
    – barbecue
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 15:16
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  1. He likes to collect differently coloured socks.
  2. He likes to collect different coloured socks.

Both examples are grammatical but the meanings are nuanced, so more on that later. First of all, I would suggest the following combination of words.

"He likes to collect socks in different colours.”

This different arrangement of words removes any misinterpretation a reader might have. Simply said, the pair of socks the person likes to collect are different from each other in colour.

Eight young women's legs wearing knee-high socks in 8 different colours

If the sock collection includes different coloured stripes or patterns, he could say

I collect multi-coloured / colourful socks (also multicoloured)

4 pairs of socks with different patterns “4-Pack Multi-color Socks Gift Set”

A more nuanced interpretation would be if the the pair of socks did not match exactly, maybe each sock was dyed by hand or each one is different from its partner. We could describe them as differently coloured (colored AmEng) instead of mismatched or odd socks.

Lastly, Google produces 328 results for “differently coloured” compared to 357 results for “different coloured”. I think everyone would agree the difference is negligible.

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