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My question is whether one should use "by", "due to", "for", or something else in a sentence like, for example:

"Mineral water differs from distilled water by/due to/for the presence of minerals"

or in general

"A differs from B by/due to/for the presence of C"

Which one is correct, "by", "due to", or "for"? Or maybe one should use another preposition? Or maybe all these possibilities are correct, but they convey a slightly different meaning?

  • I should say "due to" is the word I would choose. "For" is ok too. But I am not sure anout "by". Nativers may provide a better answer. – user178417 Jun 4 '16 at 18:52
  • Well, I would use "for" or "due to" as well, but I would really like to know the opinion of an English mother tongue – sintetico Jun 4 '16 at 21:25
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    To me, "by" and "due to" (or "because of") give different meanings here. "Due to" means that the presence of C causes some difference between A and B (without specifying the difference); "by" means that the presence of C is the difference between A and B. (And "for" seems simply wrong in this context.) – Andreas Blass Jun 6 '16 at 5:40
  • @AndreasBlass I feel that "by" is the right choice when the difference is something measurable, like in the example "My height differs from yours by 5 inches". But would it be correct to use a phrase like "by the presence of"? – sintetico Jun 6 '16 at 9:42
  • If someone downvotes the question, I would like to know the reason, so that I could improve this question and the questions I would ask in the future – sintetico Jun 6 '16 at 9:48
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It really depends on what you are trying to communicate.

If you are speaking of a measure difference you might use 'by' indicating a measured differing amount. E.g. My height differs from yours by 5 inches

If you are showing a cause of the difference you would use 'due to' E.g. Mineral water differs from distilled water due to the distilling process.

If you are looking for a purpose then you would use for E.g. A lion differs from a tiger for many reasons; however the lion is simply stronger.

  • Excellent answer. Could you comment also on the cases like "A differs from B by/due to/for the presence of C"? What you would use before "the presence of C", i.e., in the case that the difference is the presence of a specific property, which is present in A and absent in B? – sintetico Jun 5 '16 at 18:12
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If you look at Ngrams, the two most common prepositions after "differs from it" are by and in.

For this particular sentence I would not use in because in the presence of minerals could mean something else (namely, they only differ when minerals are nearby). So let's pick a different sentence. Here are three possible wordings:

Lions differ from cats in their size.
Lions differ from cats in that they are bigger.
Lions differ from cats by being bigger.

The grammar is rather complicated here ... I wouldn't put a noun after by, but a noun works perfectly well after in. I can also put a clause after in that, and a present participle (with the subject of lions) after by.

Using because or due to says that the reason lions differ from cats are that they are bigger, which may or may not be the meaning that you intend.

And your final suggestion, for, doesn't work at all in English—your thinking it might could be influenced by your native language.

  • Indeed "for" is the most natural choice for me...as you said it may be influenced by being a non-native speaker. Anyway in my question the phrase "the presence of ..." is an important part. In other words, the main difference between A and B is the presence of the property C. In general, there is no obvious way to rephrase a sentence like this as you did using a particular example. – sintetico Jun 5 '16 at 20:02
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    A differs from B by having the property C; A differs from B because of the presence of the property C; A differs from B in that the property C is present in A. – Peter Shor Jun 5 '16 at 20:03
  • I would say that "A differs from B due to the presence of C", "A differs from B because of the presence of C". I like more the first option "due to" despite silenceinlife's opinion. – sintetico Jun 5 '16 at 20:10
  • The copyeditor suggested "by" which is totally weird for me – sintetico Jun 5 '16 at 20:10
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    I think due to works fine ... the distinction between due to and because of that silenceinlife is complaining about is pretty much archaic. See Ngram. – Peter Shor Jun 5 '16 at 20:13
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In the case of due to:

Due

...is an adjective, and cannot be used as a preposition. A more correct term (closely related) would be owing to, which is grammatically correct. If you are strictly concerned about grammar then you will need to take that into account in your writing. Otherwise, it is natural to use due to.

"A differs from B due to X,Y,Z" ✓

In the above, we are saying that due to properties X,Y,Z a difference exists between object A and object B.

For is indeed a preposition (as you will see in most texts) however it is not the right word choice given the sentence structure and wording you have provided.

If you are looking to use for in your sentence, it can be used as a coordinating conjunction. This means it can be used to provide rationale between two phrases, sentences, objects etc EG

What is the reason that Jeremiah sliced his cat?

Jeremiah was hungry. Jeremiah then went and sliced his cat.

The reason (i.e. rationale for) that Jeremiah sliced his cat was, because, he was hungry.

We can then say:

"Jeremiah sliced his cat up, for he was hungry" ✓

You can use for in your sentence to explain that the difference between A and B is because of X,Y,Z however you would have to "elaborate further" to provide a rationale for such a distinction eg:

"Mineral water differs from distilled water, for the presence of [X],[Y],[Z] in mineral water give it a different boiling point/texture/reactivity"

In the example above using the word for, we have achieved the same thing as we did using due to. However, you can see that it is much more natural and easier to use due to in this case because the sentence will not be as long.

I would use because:

Mineral water differs from distilled water because of the presence of minerals.

in other words:

"A differs from B because of X,Y,Z" ✓

  • Please give a reason WHY this was downvoted. This gives the author a way to correct his solution. Downvoting with no reason stated does not add value. – Dale Jun 5 '16 at 14:13
  • @silenceislife If you repost your answer without the boondoggle about for, and without the tautology reference, I'll upvote it for owing to and because of. The distinction between coordination and preposition is a good point also. – Phil Sweet Jun 5 '16 at 15:38
  • The statement can be tautological but it was just an example. The real sentence I have in mind is slightly different, and not tautological, but I cannot write the sentence here for many reason. Think more about "A differs from B by/due to/for the presence of C", and fill A, B, and C with anything you like. – sintetico Jun 5 '16 at 18:16
  • The real sentence I have in mind is in the form "A differs from B by/due to/for the presence of C" where A, B, and C are mathematical object. Anyway it really does not matter what A, B, and C are, because my doubt is only about the grammar. So please consider my question as a question about the grammar, not about logic. I recognize that the example I choose is kind of poor, but I don't think it is strictly tautological. By the way I notice that many prepositions in math, like definitions of new concepts, may seem tautological at the first sight. – sintetico Jun 5 '16 at 19:01
  • @PeterShor I made the criticism of its tautological nature because perhaps the OP was working on that sentence in particular, which is a safe assumption to make given the pattern of questions on this site. It is not clear to me that OP picked it because it was an obvious example, because nothing explicit was mentioned as such. – silenceislife Jun 6 '16 at 1:34

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