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I never really gave a deep thought about this, but recently a teacher talked about language and there was an implicit question in it. Something like,

There is a difference between "rather than" and "instead of" in usage. Do you know it?

Please help and explain with a few examples.

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2 Answers 2

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Let's try some minimal pairs:

  • I walk rather than run
  • I walk instead of running
  • I eat apples rather than oranges
  • I eat apples instead of oranges
  • I walk quickly instead of quietly
  • I walk quickly rather than quietly

I don't really think there's much of a difference, except perhaps "rather than" implies preference whereas "instead of" implies substitution. But that might be nitpicking. And it doesn't seem to apply when using it to coordinate adverbs (last pair).

Also, there's a slight difference in the verb forms in the first pair, but there's not really a difference in meaning there.

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    I'd use rather than when a conscious choice was likely, and instead of in that case, or if it were a mistake: I ate the hot pepper instead of the pickle by mistake, but not *I ate the hot pepper rather than the pickle by mistake. Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 0:55
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"Rather than" is coordinating. "Instead of" is subordinating. As the above examples indicate, while the distinction when it's a matter of nouns or adverbs might be moot, the verb forms on either side of "rather than" are the same, while "instead of" takes a participle. Getting them mixed up in formal writing could easily confuse a reader about the nuances of the argument.

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    You really cannot get away with talking about the examples above, since that assumes a presentation order that is prone to fluctuation. But if you are commenting on someone else’s posting, then you are not answering the question. Your own answer should not require the existence of another answer, let alone of ordering. Your answer should be able to stand on its own merits without needing to reference another answer; just think, what happens if that other answer goes away?
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 2:18
  • while "instead of" takes a participle. In fact, instead of takes a noun phrase of some sort, be that a gerund or a noun, etc. It must do this as the preposition "of" must take a noun phrase. Rather than may also take a noun phrase, but, in addition it takes a bare infinitive. Historically, the bare infinitive could equally be a dative noun.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Oct 18, 2021 at 14:02
  • Right, the "running" in the example is actually not a present participle; it's a gerund.
    – Yeltommo
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 23:34

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