1. ODO doesn't distinguish them, except calculus's definition about which I'm not asking. ''different' is synonymized with 'differential', and vice versa.

  2. Why can't 'different' substitute 'differential' in the red underlines beneath?

Source: Introduction to Politics: First Canadian Edition (2012 1 ed., but ∃ 2016 2 ed.). p. 87 Top

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  From the right, Rawls's major critic has been the American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938—2002). Nozick was writing from a libertarian perspective, which calls for a state focused on protection of property rights. He put forward a procedural theory of justice in which the main concern is not the outcome (e.g., meeting needs) but the way in which property (in the broad sense, meaning anything possessed by an individual) is acquired. It is therefore a historical theory in which "past circumstances or actions of people can create differential entitlements or differential deserts to things" (Nozick, 1974, [Anarchy, State, and Utopia]: p. 155). Provided that the property was acquired fairly, then the owner has a just entitlement to it. Nozick considered any attempt to redistribute property, even through taxation, to be unjust.

  • 1
    The definitions for "different" are quite different from the definitions for "differential". Note that "different" cannot be defined in terms of "differential", but "differential " cannot be defined WITHOUT invoking the definition of "different". And of course this is reflected in usage: Two different people (not differential). Different strokes for different folks (not differential). A horse of a different color (not differential). Try a little harder to actually read thd definitions, and you will perceive they are different (not differential). May 28, 2015 at 8:57

4 Answers 4


'Different' may only be an adjective.

It describes a lack of similarity.

  • "Tom and Jim are different people."
  • "Tom and Jim each purchased a different number of apples."

'Differential' may be either an adjective or a noun.

When used as a noun, it may be a difference between things.

  • "There was a five apple differential between the two purchases."

The noun form of 'differential' typically refers to differences between amounts of things. For this case, the differential is the different amount between Tom's apples and Jim's apples.

A differential is the difference between two different things.

When used as an adjective, it is of or refers to a difference.

  • "Tom and Jim had differential purchases."

The confusion sets in when one tries to understand what is the difference that 'differential' refers to. This is because "differential purchases" can refer to any difference between the purchases.

Perhaps "differential purchases" refers to the difference of five dollars (the differential), the difference of the amount of apples, some difference between Tom and Jim, or some other difference all together.

Something that is differential is about or refers to a difference between two (or more) different things.

In short, 'differential' typically describes some difference between two (or more) instances of the noun. For this case, 'differential purchases' describes two different purchases which are in some way different.

'Differential' may be used to prevent redundant uses of 'different' as long as it is used with a difference that is being effected by the other difference.

For example:

  • "the different purchases of different numbers of apples."

may be paraphrased as:

  • "the differential purchases of different numbers of apples."

"Different purchases" depends on the "different number of apples". So, only "different purchases" may be substituted with "differential purchases" in this case.

  • "There was a five apple differential between the two purchases." This doesn't feel idiomatic? Would a native Anglophone say this?
    – user8712
    Jun 4, 2019 at 1:06
  • differential is the adjective for difference. Different means not the same as.
    – Lambie
    Jun 4, 2019 at 3:15
  • "A differential is the difference between two different things." Nope, a differential is the difference between two instances of the same thing. For instance, between bottled beer and canned beer, provided it is the same beer. Or between the price Amazon charges one person for something vs the price it charges another for the same thing (dynamic pricing).
    – Phil Sweet
    Jun 8, 2019 at 23:21
  • @PhilSweet: differential pricing = difference in pricing. Of course, between two instances of the same thing. Who would say otherwise?? Five apple differential is a no-go to me.
    – Lambie
    Jun 10, 2019 at 13:30

I would say that differential as used in technical contexts (ODO says it's "chiefly technical") refers to a difference in respect to a particular metric (or a particular set of related metrics), whereas different refers to any distinguishing or individuating feature.


The differences between the two are really in the usage situations. 'Differential' is really only used to describe a type of calculus, or is the name of a car part. If there are other uses, I've never heard them.

In almost all other cases, people will use the word 'different'. So while there isn't much of a difference in their meaning, the situations in which they are used are vastly different. And so if you were to use 'differential' where most use 'different', or vice versa , you are likely going to get some strange looks from people.

I hope that helps!

  • 1
    As other answers describe, the usage of "differential" is significantly broader than a car part or a form of calculus. Jun 4, 2019 at 0:32

I see differential as an unnecessary word. It's something people use to justify being paid more in their field. It's something people use to demonstrate that they have been to college. It's mainly to intimidate people who could do their job but don't know it. But it's also an ego boost for those who value seeing themselves as superior.

  • That is a personal opinion but does not represent normal usage.
    – Chenmunka
    Aug 18, 2021 at 17:15
  • Most of the answers on this question are shoddy, I figured I'd catch some flak from folks who feel called out. The asker is trying to decide if the word "differential" is unnecessary in English, and this is my explanation of the only motive behind its existence that I have been able to find. Aug 19, 2021 at 21:08

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