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Does anybody else besides me have a problem with the following formulation when used in formal writing, (e.g. research papers)?

The difference in x between y and z.

For instance, in a conversation:

"The difference in price between a Chevy and a Ford for a comparable model."
"The difference in intelligence between a donkey and a mule."

As a proofreader in social science, I encounter this formulation more and more in papers. Of course we say this in conversation - but in a research paper or book? (I wonder whether a top publishing house editor would permit this.)

For one thing, "difference" takes "in", but here, also "between". Should "difference" take two different prepositions at the same time in one sentence? Ultimately, I can't think of any situation where such a statement shouldn't be perfectly understandable.

So my objection must be down to elitist thinking (unless I maybe find the formulation in nearly every paragraph of a paper, that is). It just sounds to me like something from a "lower" language register (if I'm allowed to say that today).

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  • My own mind is stumbling because the word 'difference' followed by 'y' and 'z' causes me to query why 'x' is in the sentence at all. Then my mind suspects that 'x' is the same as the 'difference between y and z'. I suggest the differing of x between parameters y and z as a logical solution. +1 Good question. How useful a participle can be, instead of a noun ! – Nigel J Jun 19 '20 at 12:52
  • Would you find 'the difference of opinion between X and Y' unnatural-sounding? If not, is this less because 'difference of opinion' is a fixed phrase, unlike 'difference in pressure' etc? Note that attributive alternatives are often if not always available (the pressure difference between ...'). – Edwin Ashworth Jun 19 '20 at 13:32
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    Your example sentences look fine to me, even in formal writing. An alternative would be to take the nouns from the "in" phrases and use them as adjectives instead: The price difference between a Chevy and a Ford ...." – Andreas Blass Jun 21 '20 at 3:15
  • So my objection must be down to elitist thinking I don't think so: in the price and in intelligence are adjectival prepositional phrases modifying "difference". "In" is used as it is locative, and shows where the specified attribute of difference lies. If I am interested in one of the many differences between an apple and a car - I use "What is the difference in price/size/edibility/the resistance to crushing, etc., between an apple and a car?" – Greybeard Jun 22 '20 at 16:32
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"The difference in intelligence between a donkey and a mule"

I can't see a problem with this. "in intelligence" is effectively parenthetical.

"The difference (in intelligence) between a donkey and a mule"

Similarly we could invert it and get:

"The difference between a donkey and a mule, in intelligence, is considerable.

For me in this context "in" means "apropos".

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