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A friend of mine for whom English is a second language told me that I am the only person he knows who uses the word "dislike", and asked me what the difference was from saying that I "don't like" something. I answered that they were the same, but that "dislike" might be more formal... but it occurred to me that I was not totally confident with this answer.

Is there a difference between "I dislike that" and "I don't like that" besides the former being more formal?

  • I don't think there is any real difference between the two. – CipherBot Aug 26 '15 at 5:35
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    I think they are slightly different. "Don't like" may convey indifference but "dislike" stresses on hate. – Eilia Aug 26 '15 at 5:52
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    "don't like" is merely an absence of liking. "dislike" is fairly mild, but still it entails the presence of negative feelings. "I don't like pistachio ice cream" is milder than "I dislike my sister's new boyfriend." it's all part of a continuum.....don't like, dislike, disdain, abhor, detest, can't stand, hate..... Check definitions of these words, and of others you might find alongside them in a thesaurus. – Brian Hitchcock Aug 26 '15 at 5:54
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    I only use dislike with nouns. For example, I don't like to ski, but I dislike skiing. And this Ngram shows that lots of other Americans have the same usage constraints. – Peter Shor Aug 26 '15 at 11:08
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    To me "don't like" means that I do not enjoy it, i.e. would not prefer to have it, but that I will still have it, whereas dislike means that I actually don't want it at all and will not have it. – Steve C Jan 2 '18 at 21:42
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Saying that you dislike something means you have a distaste for or hostility towards it.

When you don't like something, it means that you would prefer something else over it. You would want this to not happen.

Source: Apple's dictionary.

'Don't like' means that even though you would prefer the other thing you can still adjust to this happening. But saying that you 'dislike' means that you will be really unhappy if the thing that you disliked, happens.

My opinion: People use 'don't like' more than 'dislike' because 'don't like' is a softer way to convey an aversion than dislike. Moreover, we should use the exact word that describes our feeling. If you use dislike in place of 'don't like', you will be left with nothing to express yourself when something that you 'dislike', happens.

Update: Happen to find another similar question.

  • Please use italic for mentions. – tchrist Aug 26 '15 at 11:13
  • @EdwinAshworth: In a matter as important as of liking someone it would be better to be clear and contextualize properly. Otherwise we can just say 'don't like' and keep the zero option open. – displayName Aug 27 '15 at 22:19
  • I'll correct my comment. CGEL does say that the pragmatics of the situation are that a bald 'Mary doesn't like you' implicates 'Mary dislikes you', and that the "zero option" 'would normally [be expected to be contextualised. To give an example,]' 'Mary doesn't like you, but she doesn't dislike you either' is an acceptable use of the "zero option". So OP's question needs really needs to be better defined. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 27 '15 at 22:21
  • @EdwinAshworth: Got you. Agreed. – displayName Aug 27 '15 at 22:29
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Just as in logic, negation affects only the constituent it modifies, but in logic, negation can modify only sentences, whereas in English, it can modify other constituents as well. (A logician might prefer to call negation an "operator" rather than a "modifier".) The constituent modified by negation is called its "scope". Syntacticians test for where the scope of negation is by constructing examples with polarity items, positive and negative (see the Wikipedia article on polarity item).

As your intuitions probably suggest, in "dislike", negation modifies only the verb "like", but in "doesn't like ...", negation modifies the entire verb phrase. Accordingly, positive polarity "somewhat" is permissible after "dislike" because it is not within the scope of negation,

I dislike snails somewhat.

but negative polarity "at all" is not permissible,

*I dislike snails at all.

"Don't like" is opposite, since the entire verb phrase is the scope of the negation:

*I don't like snails somewhat.  
 I don't like snails at all.

The definitive syntacticians' reference to negation and scope is Larry Horn's A natural history of negation.

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Dislike is stronger than don't like. Don't like is passive; it's an absence of liking. You could for instance be neutral or disinterested. Dislike is active. It means you expressly do not like it and are therefore by definition not neutral about it.

If you imagine a scale going from dislike at -1 to like at 1, "don't like" is in the middle at zero. Or at the very least it refers to the entire part of the scale between -1 and 0, inclusive.

  • You know, when I say I don't like John, it's quite a bit stronger than mere absence of liking. – Peter Shor Aug 26 '15 at 11:53
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    @PeterShow That depends on the emphasis. If you say I don't like John it could mean you don't dislike him either. – Pepijn Schmitz Aug 26 '15 at 11:55
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    'Don't like' takes a range of values from -1 to 0, and thus is sometimes as strong in indicating revulsion as 'dislike'. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 26 '15 at 21:06
  • @EdwinAshworth: In my answer I myself wanted to explain it using -1, 0 and, 1 but refrained from it as people are not always in the same mindset and therefore miserably fail to appreciate any such explanation attempts. For me, I know exactly what you mean. – displayName Aug 26 '15 at 22:54
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    @PepijnSchmitz: Dislike = -1, Like = 1, Don't like implies not 1, therefore can be 0 (i.e. indifferent) or -1 (i.e. dislike). – displayName Aug 26 '15 at 23:31
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It depends on the context. "Don't like" can be interpreted in the same way as "dislike" e.g. "I don't like ice cream" is the same as "I dislike ice cream". They both mean I don't like any kind of ice cream.

In other cases, the two can have very different meanings e.g. "I don't like all flavours of ice cream" vs "I dislike all flavours of ice cream". Here, by using "don't like" I imply that I like most flavours of ice cream but there are a few that I don't. On the other hand using "Dislike", tells you, as with the first example that there are no flavours of ice cream I enjoy.

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The only non-obsolete meaning that the OED finds for "dislike" is "not to like," so I think it's safe to say there's no difference.

  • If that's all OED has to say, displayName seems a better bet. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 26 '15 at 8:47
  • The OED also comments that the word is "the opposite of like" and provides six historical usages over 300 years or so. Notwithstanding displayNames' opinions about options, specificity, what "people use," comparative softness, and the dire consequences of misusing "dislike," my money remains on the OED. YMMV. – deadrat Aug 26 '15 at 8:56
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    Remember that OED is not always the best arbiter of current usage. I certainly agree with displayName that 'I don't like ...' is ambiguous (from 'I dislike ...' or worse* to 'X is not one of my favourites'. (ODO, a more frequently updated Oxford dictionary, lists as synonyms of 'dislike': hate, detest, loathe, abominate, abhor, despise, scorn, shun, execrate ... But this may be going too in far the other direction.) – Edwin Ashworth Aug 26 '15 at 10:20
  • No source is always the best arbiter of current usage, and I'm willing to be convinced by evidence of a difference between the two locutions. displayName's opinion, even heralded in bold, just isn't enough to change my bet. – deadrat Aug 26 '15 at 18:34
  • 5jj on Using English.com/forum comments wisely, with a good example: Re: Don't like and dislike << Most of the time there is no big difference; we tend to use 'don't like' when 'dislike' might be expected. We possibly use 'dislike' in more formal contexts. It is possible to use 'don't like' with the simple idea of 'absence of liking'; but we then usually add a few words to make our meaning clear: "I don't (really) like Indian food, but I don't (actually) dislike it"..>> – Edwin Ashworth Aug 26 '15 at 21:12
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Imagine it like so:

Word                                | Emotion as number         | Example
------------------------------------|----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Love                                |  2  (max. positive value) | I love it!
Like                                |  1                        | I like it
(none)                              |  0                        | No comment / It's ok / I've no feeling towards it / 50-50 / etc
Dislike                             | -1                        | I dislike it
Hate                                | -2  (max. negative value) | I hate it!

Notice none of the 4 words above (far left column) are negated. Negation happens by adding "don't" before the word. Examples:

  • I don't love it.
  • I don't like it.
  • I don't dislike it.
  • I don't hate it.

When you use negation, it doesn't necessarily mean the opposite, it just mean it could be ANY other feeling.

  • I don't like it. actual emotion could be "I love it!".
  • I don't like it. actual emotion could be "It's ok".
  • I don't like it. actual emotion could be "I dislike it".
  • I don't like it. actual emotion could be "I hate it!".

Words in any language depends on context, so the meaning of a word may change, and also they way we say/express it.

Range:

I don't like it, but I don't hate it is a range expression which is between no-comment and dislike. So rating this feeling in mathematical equation could be like so:

-2 < Emotion < 1

So could be -1.9 ... 0.9


Answering the Question (Dislike vs. Don't Like):

Dislike = -1

Don't Like = ANY number that's not 1 (could be 2, 0, -1, -2), so it's ambiguous statement, which could be clearer by context + the way it's said/expressed/sounded.

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