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Difference or Distinction: What’s the Difference?

The nouns “difference” and “distinction” can be challenging for anyone to distinguish, especially since they’re actually synonyms. Still, they do have subtle nuances.

Difference and distinction both refer to how people or things differ. “Distinction” is a more nuanced synonym that also means something that makes something stand out, usually referring to a characteristic that is better in some way than the others.

Distinction is used in a far more specific sense for something that sets something or someone apart from others. Both “difference” and “distinction” refer to the state of being or the degree to which persons or things are dissimilar.

For example, there is a difference between Ford and Mercedes vehicles, but Mercedes has more distinction.

In other words, “difference” and “distinction” are how people or things differ. At the same time, “distinction” can also mean something that makes something stand out, usually referring to a characteristic that is better in some way than the others.

Difference vs. Distinction

The way that people or things differ. A particular characteristic that makes a person or thing stand out from others.  

“Difference” and “distinction” are nouns. As we know, a noun is a word that refers to an entity, quality, state, action, or concept; it can serve as the subject performing an action (verb) or an object receiving the action.

Both “difference” and “distinction” are count nouns, meaning we can count them using numbers or use quantifiers like many or few with them.

They have a singular and a plural form,“differences” and “distinctions,” because there can be multiple differences or distinctions between various things.

As nouns, their meanings are largely the same, except that “distinction” often carries the added definition of a difference that makes something or someone particularly noteworthy.

Rarely, “difference” has been used as a verb, as in to difference something. In this case, it means to differentiate or distinguish.

The verb form of “distinction” is to “distinguish” (verb) or make “distinctions” (noun), meaning to perceive particular differences in something.

The respective adjective forms would be “different,” “distinct,” and “distinctive,” and the adverbs would be “differently” and “distinctly.”

We use the adjective forms to describe nouns or objects as distinct or different in a more general way, while the adverbs describe actions.

Difference: Meaning and Proper Use

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According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the word “difference” describes the state of being dissimilar or unlike between two or more persons or objects — they are not the same (source).

Particular Differences

There can be a particular difference or multiple differences between two or more persons or things, as in the sentences below.

The difference between them is that he is a boy, and she is a girl.

The difference between the two girls is that one has brown hair and the other has blonde hair.

There is a difference between saying and doing.

Among their differences would be the style of clothes they wear and their height.

Synonyms for difference would include change, contrast, divergence, distinction, variation, diversity. It can even imply discrepancy, inequality, separation, or disparity, but not necessarily so (source). 

The antonyms or opposites of difference would be similarity, uniformity, conformity, community, likeness, sameness, resemblance, analogy, analogousness, accord, and harmony. 

Like the synonyms, each of these antonyms has slightly different meanings, reflecting how slippery the issues of difference, equality, uniformity, and conformity can be.

You will often find quite a variance of opinion on what the relationship between difference and equality is.

A Disagreement

A difference can also refer to a disagreement about something or variance of opinion on a matter. The following sentences describe people who think differently — in a different way. They’ve come to loggerheads about some issue.

They have always had their differences.

They have always had their differences.

The councilman said there is a sharp difference of opinion about what we should do next.

The debate gave them a chance to express their differences.

They filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.

The third example indicates that they’re attempting to resolve their differences, while the fourth example demonstrates that the differences cannot be reconciled or resolved.

Using “difference” as “disagreement” can involve a measure of hostility, animosity, controversy, conflict, and disunity.

The opposite would be acceptance, compliance, concord, peace, fixation, or stabilization. As the last example implies, these are not always attainable.

A Mathematical Difference

We also use “difference” in mathematics to mean the number left after subtracting one from another or, more generally, to refer to an age difference.

The difference between 10 and 3 is 7.

The price difference between the two books was $10.

The age difference between them is significant.

There’s a 10-year age difference between her oldest and youngest children.

Indicating an Important Change

We also use “difference” to indicate a significant change or stark contrast caused by a particular action.

Studying after school made a huge difference in his grades.

He noticed a marked difference in his child’s behavior. 

He thought he could make a difference in the world. 

The word difference is used in the first sentence to describe how his grades improved due to studying after school. Thus, the difference between his old grades and new grades.

Distinction: Meaning and Proper Use

A “distinction” is the real or perceived difference or the contrast between similar things or people. This real or perceived difference can mean separating people or things into different groups according to their characteristics. 

When the differences are artificial or superficial, it bears the connotation of the state of being kept different or distinct.

Particular Differences

In the following examples, we use “distinction” in the sense of “difference.”

There is a sharp distinction between the strength of boys and girls.

There are no obvious distinctions between the two designs.

The distinction between right and wrong becomes difficult when your emotions are involved. 

There is a subtle distinction between beige and tan. 

The company makes no distinction between race, religion, or sex. 

The distinction that the professor made is purely academic. 

In these two sentences, “distinction” is largely synonymous with “difference,” and we can use them interchangeably. There is an obvious difference in the strength of boys and girls, and there are no specific differences between the two designs.

Distinctions and Fairness

Differences often result in people treating someone or something differently, but this can cause problems, especially within a legal context. That is why we prefer that judges rule without distinction concerning race, gender, or ethnicity.

While real differences exist between individuals, there is a natural human desire that others recognize our essential equality as human beings. Make sure you review our article on equal versus equitable for more on this topic.

Without differences and distinctions, we would all be exactly the same and lose our individuality or personality. One essential distinction to make is that of superficial external differences and more important distinctions regarding character.

Distinctions and Value Judgements

We also find it necessary to punish evil and reward good, which requires distinguishing, discerning, and discriminating between good and evil.

However, what someone qualifies as good or evil will vary depending on their value system. While there might be a subjective element to this, there are many instances where there is wide agreement on what constitutes good or evil.

Other times, the use of “distinction” is more ambiguous and does not necessarily imply that something is better just because it is different.

Regional distinctions of the state include beautiful lakes with waterfalls.

The state is different from the other states in that it has beautiful lakes with waterfalls. Does this necessarily imply that it’s better than other states?

That will depend on how much you value lakes and waterfalls compared to other distinctive aspects of various states.

In this case, the judgment of value is largely subjective, varying from person to person, rather than objective, meaning factual and not influenced by personal feelings or prejudices.

Distinction vs. Separation

While they are often listed as synonyms, it’s important to note that a distinction does not necessarily imply a separation. One theologian used the illustration of body and soul to show how this can be the case. 

For instance, to distinguish between your body and soul does you no harm, but to separate your soul from your body will result in death.

Something that Stands Out

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The noun “distinction” often has the added connotation of something that stands out as having exceptional quality, uniqueness, honor, or value. Here we have a description of excellence that sets someone or something apart from others (source).

He was a writer of great distinction.

The shop sold jewelry of distinction.

Several surgeons of international distinction work at the hospital.

The house has the distinction of being the oldest in the street.

The writer has earned a reputation above his peers, while the jewelry shop has likewise earned a reputation for quality above others.

The surgeons were highly regarded in their line of work and were seen as being above others in rank or importance. The house has the honor and exception of being the oldest, making it unique.

Antonyms for this definition of distinction would include insignificance, inferiority, mediocrity, obscureness, or obscurity.

A Specific Honor or Award

with distinctionUsed with special awards or recognition, particularly in the field of education.He graduated with distinction.

We also use “distinction” to refer to a special honor, award, or some form of recognition for outstanding work. Certain phrases are used with the word “distinction” that do not change form, particularly when related to the field of education (source).

She gained distinction through her diploma.

He won the highest distinction awarded for excellence in photography.

He passed his exams with distinction

My brother served with distinction in the war. 

I did all the hard work, but he got the distinction.

The concept here is the same in that “distinction” refers to something that sets them apart, but it also refers more specifically to an award of some kind.

She did exceptionally well in her studies and was awarded for it. Similarly, he was the best photographer, so he won a prize.

These refer to public acknowledgment or admiration for outstanding achievement, while the last example indicates that the individual who actually did the work did not receive the award that they had earned.

Distinction Without a Difference

A distinction without a difference is a perceived or implied difference where there is no actual difference (source). 

It’s often an attempt by someone to avoid the truth by drawing an arbitrary distinction between things that are the same. For instance, someone who has lied might wish instead to say that they merely stretched the truth a little bit (source).

To accuse someone of drawing a distinction without a difference is to say that the linguistic or conceptual distinction they are trying to make is a logical fallacy or has no real substance to it. 

This is especially relevant to the legal field as laws sometimes attempt to draw distinctions that don’t really exist. Someone may draft a legal document in such a way as to try to draw subtle distinctions in an attempt to commit fraud.

Likewise, a defendant in a court of law might try to justify their actions by drawing faulty distinctions. This phrase is mostly used when a word or a phrase has a meaning that one party in the conversation prefers to avoid. 

Consider the following examples:

I didn’t cheat; I just bent the rules a little.

We’re not losing popularity; we just appeal more to a niche market.

I’m not lost; I’m just finding my way.

People will often attempt to place a certain spin on a situation, either maliciously trying to deceive or just to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. We each have a tendency to do this to ourselves, rationalizing something that we know isn’t true.

We can also use it to engage in an irrelevant argument when the ultimate result is actually the same.

For more on rationalization and plausibility, you may want to read our article, “Plausible vs. Possible: What’s the Difference?

Final Thoughts

The words “difference” and “distinction” are nouns and can be used in several different ways. We can use “difference” and “distinction” to describe the way people or things differ, while we can also use “distinction” to describe what makes people or things set apart.

We often use “difference” in a mathematical sense to express the numerical amount by which things differ. Such differences and distinctions can lead to jealousy or animosity if we let them, but without differences and distinctions, life would be so blasé.

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