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Recently, I corrected a sentence for someone so that it read, "What is the difference between a seamstress, a tailor, and a dressmaker?" Later, the person asked why it wouldn't read "What are the differences between..." instead. Other than the former sentence feeling intuitively correct, I didn't have a good explanation. Then it occurred to me that perhaps it has to do with "difference" being countable or uncountable depending on the situation. Which is to say, when used as a general concept about the dissimilarity of two or more things, it's uncountable, but becomes countable when referring to specific differences, as in, "The differences between us became too glaring to ignore." Does it come down to C/U nouns, or is there something else?

  • As a native BrE speaker, I would use "What are the differences..." Unless at least two of the three are identical there have to be at least three differences (S-T, T-D, and D-S). Comment because I can't explain why. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jan 7 at 11:04
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    I see what you're getting at, however the online Cambridge Dictionary gives the following definition: "the way in which two or more things which you are comparing are not the same", suggesting that it's irrelevant as to how many items are being compared. – TFlo83 Jan 7 at 11:16
  • Does this answer your question? Is "between" always used for two things? – FumbleFingers Jan 7 at 15:34
  • Not quite. I'm aware that between is not limited to two things. My question is more about the use of difference vs. differences when comparing more than two things. – TFlo83 Jan 8 at 3:12
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Oxford dictionary defines "difference" as:

a point or way in which people or things are dissimilar.

So, "the difference" would be a single way in which two things differ.

However, one might innocently ask if there is a single difference between two things and receive the response that there are actually several ways in which the two differ. One cannot expect the person asking such a question to know how many differences there are.

However, if there is more than two persons or things being compared, the plural differences should be used:

What are the differences between a seamstress, a tailor, and a dressmaker?

Alternatively, you could ask:

How do a seamstress, a tailor, and a dressmaker differ?

The latter does not assume that there are multiple differences, as two of the three could be entirely synonymous and perhaps only one difference between the third.

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    I'm almost convinced...but not quite, mainly due to the fact that neither the Oxford nor the Cambridge definitions specify that it is one difference between two things. Both suggest that it can be a multiplicity of things that differ. – TFlo83 Jan 7 at 11:31
  • @TFlo83 Not explicitly, but "a point" is singular. It could be argued that "the difference" could refer to a portfolio of differences. Really, it all comes down to what you know - if you know you are about to refer to more than one difference then you should use the plural, but if you are enquiring about a difference because you don't know if there are differences or not, and if so,m how many, really you can't be expected to get it right. – Astralbee Jan 7 at 11:44
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    Point taken. I suppose that, in this particular case, since the difference(s) between a seamstress, a tailor, and a dressmaker are not significant, I would feel comfortable sticking to the singular. If, on the other hand, the question was, "What are the differences between a cow, a giraffe, and a whale," the plural most certainly seems more appropriate. – TFlo83 Jan 7 at 12:05
  • @TFlo83 But you've got 3 item for comparison, you really need to use the plural. You don't know what the difference(s) are, so you shouldn't assume that there is only 1 difference between two of them. If you knew two of the three were essentially the same, you wouldn't include it in your request – Astralbee Jan 7 at 12:12
  • Hmmm...but by that logic, shouldn't you use the plural form even for two things then? In other words, why should we assume there's only one difference between two things and not multiple differences between two things? Contrary to your suggestion that, if one knew that two of the three were essentially the same, they wouldn't include them in their request, I would actually argue the opposite: precisely because two (or more) things appear to be essentially the same, one becomes curious as to what the distinction is. – TFlo83 Jan 7 at 13:11

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