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How different is different?
April 17, 2012 8:18 PM   Subscribe

English language friends: Why do we use the word “different” when it doesn’t appear to be necessary?

BoingBoing’s science editor, Maggie Koerth-Baker, wrote a post about producing electricity which includes this sentence: “That Kansas coal plant is meant to produce electricity for seven different Western states.” My immediate thought is, naturally the plant would produce electricity for seven different states because it can’t produce electricity for seven of the same state. Yet I have seen many good writers in addition to Ms. Koerth-Baker use the word “different” in this way.

I can only surmise it is being employed in such instances as an intensifier and (given the state of the rest of the world) a fairly harmless one. Still, this usage is slowly becoming a pet peeve. What do you say?
posted by bryon to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's just lazy filler writing, much like using a qualifier for unique. Not only is it not necessary, it's poor writing.

You can do what I do, and sob yourself to sleep at night over the declining standards of grammar in widely-read writing, or you could just try to ignore it. (I suggest the latter.)
posted by phunniemee at 8:24 PM on April 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


I say this is just the sort of question that the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange excels at. But yes, it's an intensifier. I don't necessarily think it's poor writing, any more than "the whole wide world" is poor when you could just write "the world." Sometimes it just feels bigger with more words in it.
posted by kindall at 8:28 PM on April 17, 2012 [9 favorites]


I don't think it's an example of a redundant intensifier. But it is poorly written.

The author of the piece follows your quoted sentence with 'Not just Kansas', so the point she's trying to make is that the seven Western states don't include Kansas. If she'd just written 'for seven Western states', the reader might assume that's seven including Kansas.

Such a misreading wouldn't be the end of the world - after all, it's Boing Boing, not a peer-reviewed journal article. But for those with an interest in the subject matter, perhaps it is an important qualifier.

A clearer alternative would be something like '...for seven other Western states, in addition to Kansas.'
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:35 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't necessarily think it's poor writing, any more than "the whole wide world" is poor when you could just write "the world."

Well, saying "the whole wide world" is bad writing! And using "different" in the way the OP is describing (after a number) is bad writing. It happens to be common, but it's bad, at least if you subscribe to basic principles about being concise and omitting needless words. "Different" in this sense just means "multiple," so it's redundant to use "different" with a number greater than one. ("Different" can also refer to qualitative differences — as in, Texas is a very different state from Rhode Island, since one is a huge state in the South and the other is a tiny state in the Northeast — but that's not the definition of "different" the author is using.)

The author of the piece follows your quoted sentence with 'Not just Kansas', so the point she's trying to make is that the seven Western states don't include Kansas. If she'd just written 'for seven Western states', the reader might assume that's seven including Kansas.

I don't know where you get that from. To me, either phrasing, with or without "different," leaves it an open question whether Kansas is one of the states. To exclude Kansas, you'd need to say "seven other states." The use of "different" in "seven different states" just means "Boy, isn't seven a lot of states?!" At best, you could justify the word by saying it "intensifies" the sentence, but frankly, the author probably used it by rote and would have deleted it if she had stopped to consider whether it truly added anything.
posted by John Cohen at 9:05 PM on April 17, 2012


Thinking about it, I think this usage of different is related to the preceding number --- that is, I think it's an idiomatic phrase of the form "X different [class]" where the use of "different" connotes "entirely separate and unrelated".

Like, look at these mad bastards. Using different suggests a wideness of variety -- if they had said "five different weapons" and three of them turned out to be short medium and longish swords, that would feel like a bit of a cheat --- three of the examples would be mere variations on a theme than truly "different" weapons. Like a fancy restaurant will sometimes have an appetiser --- "turbot three ways," in which it is expected that the preparations will both contrast and complement one another. But if there was a magazine article called "three different ways to use turbot" you would expect the preparations to be quite distinct, so much so that they can employ the same main ingredient yet not be reminiscent of one another.
posted by Diablevert at 9:06 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think Diablevert has it--we get into the habit of using it when we need it ("I ate five cookies" and "I ate five different cookies" don't mean the same thing) and then use it when we don't need it "I read biographies of five Popes" and "I read biographies of five different Popes" do mean the same thing).
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:28 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's "bad writing" only in the pedantic sense, which equates "good writing" with writing that follows an arbitrary set of rules of style.

I also don't think this is a matter of "habits." Note that you intuitively know when you can use "different" this way and when you can't. For example, you wouldn't say "a person has two different legs."

I also doubt that most people using this kind of "different" mean it in the sense of "distinct." It would be much less commonly used if the difference in meaning was so subtle.

Also, note that English is not the only language that uses a word that means "different" this way. For example, Russian uses the word разный in a very similar way. Russian has a great tradition of language pedantry, and yet I haven't heard of this usage being called particularly egregious.

I am inclined to agree with your initial analysis: it looks like it functions as an intensifier for numbers, like a mid-sentence exclamation mark: "That Kansas coal plant is meant to produce electricity for seven (!) Western states."

Unless you object to intensifiers like "very" on the principle that people must use language that is fancy and colorful, I don't know how you can justify your dislike in rational terms. But that's not a very big problem — we all have irrational beliefs and prejudices about language. It's fine as long as you aren't obnoxious about it.
posted by Nomyte at 9:44 PM on April 17, 2012 [13 favorites]


Yeah, after thinking about Nomyte's post, my feeling about this is that the word "different" helps emphasize how big of a deal the author thinks this is that so many states are served.

Redundancy does not always deserve a bad rap. Sometimes, as Strunk & White would tell you, you want your style to err on the side of unnecessary words if it prevents ambiguous interpretations of your sentence. Here, by throwing the weight behind "different," the author guarantees that you don't accidentally read the sentence the other way around, as "The Kansas coal plant produces ELECTRICITY, as opposed to other products."

Bad writing would be if you couldn't tell what point Ms. Koerth-Baker was trying to make.
posted by steinsaltz at 9:52 PM on April 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


You're right.

And KS/OK/NE/TX as "Western" states? Bah.
posted by fleacircus at 10:49 PM on April 17, 2012


Well, saying "the whole wide world" is bad writing!

It's conversational, sure, and out of place in many styles of writing. Bad? "Bad writing" is writing that fails to connect with the reader. Most writing contains many words that are not, strictly speaking, necessary to convey mere meaning, but which serve to flavor the prose and thereby convey the author's voice.
posted by kindall at 10:54 PM on April 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


Emphasis.
posted by bardic at 2:07 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The way I read it, it does change the meaning in a useful way. It indicates that the sentence is referring to seven actual states, ruling out the posbility of interpreting it to mean an output theoretically sufficient for seven (hypothetical/average) states.

But I wouldn't stake money that this was intentional.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:43 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


For emphasis, to change the rhythm of the sentence...
posted by mskyle at 4:36 AM on April 18, 2012


It's an intensifier, yes, and specifically one that emphasizes the array of items it refers to (like rhetorically spreading them out on a table to be seen separately). I don't agree that it's bad writing -- the sentence with and without "different" does not have the same sense.
posted by aught at 5:58 AM on April 18, 2012


It also breaks up the potentially awkward slant rhyme between seven and Western, which would otherwise be more pronounced.
posted by dizziest at 8:17 AM on April 18, 2012


The phrasing "seven different Western states" describes this a fairly large area. Describing the same area as "just seven Western states" would have the opposite meaning.

I use "different" this way frequently myself. I don't consider it to be bad writing. I see no reason to object to this usage unless you would also object to other intensifiers like "very" or "even" or the use of words like "somewhat" or "mildly". We use words and constructions like this to convey emphasis and nuance. It's part of using language to communicate.
posted by nangar at 8:39 AM on April 18, 2012


Here's my rule of thumb: If you think you're using a redundant intensifier, replace it with the word "motherfucking" and if it still works, or works better, you've got yourself a needless word.

“That Kansas coal plant is meant to produce electricity for seven motherfucking Western states.”

Yup, still works. Nuke it.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:14 AM on April 18, 2012


It's just for emphasis - there's no harm in it.

Meanwhile:

You can do what I do, and sob yourself to sleep at night over the declining standards of grammar in widely-read writing, or you could just try to ignore it. (I suggest the latter.)

I sob myself to sleep over people who use hyphens after "-ly" adverbs, so it all evens out.
posted by cincinnatus c at 10:29 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


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