distinction without a difference
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- (set phrase) A linguistic or conceptual distinction which is of no practical importance or which has no effect on meaning; a perceived difference where there is no actual difference.
1831, James Fenimore Cooper, chapter 14, in Homeward Bound:
- "'The Active Inquirer' is the present name, though when we supported Mr. Adams it was called 'The Active Enquirer,' with an E."
- "A distinction without a difference; I like that," interrupted Captain Truck.
- 1880, Mark Twain, "Concerning the American Language, being part of a chapter which was crowded out of A Tramp Abroad":
- I said . . . I did not speak English at all—I only spoke American. He laughed, and said it was a distinction without a difference. I said no, the difference was not prodigious, but still it was considerable.
- 1964, "Obliterating the Effect," Time, 25 Dec.:
- The fact that the sit-in convictions were under state rather than federal law, ruled last week's majority, is "a distinction without a difference."
- 1996, "Editorial: A setback for attempts to censor the Internet," Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 13 June:
- "Obscene" is a higher standard than "indecent," although it seems like a distinction without a difference.
- 2007, Cass R. Sunstein, "The Supreme Court's conservative divide," The New Republic Online, 29 June:
- The Bush Administration attempted to distinguish the current case from Flast. . . . Judge Richard Posner, writing for the court of appeals, responded that this was a distinction without a difference. In the end, all money is appropriated by Congress.