distinction without a difference

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distinction without a difference (plural distinctions without a difference or distinctions without differences)

  1. (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 December 25, “Obliterating the Effect”, in Time:
      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 June 13, “Editorial: A setback for attempts to censor the Internet”, in Honolulu Star-Bulletin:
      "Obscene" is a higher standard than "indecent," although it seems like a distinction without a difference.
    • 2007 June 29, Cass R. Sunstein, “The Supreme Court's conservative divide”, in The New Republic Online:
      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.
    • 2018, The Jews: A History, John M Efron, Steven Weitzman, and Matthias B Lehmann:
      [Attacking European Jews while claiming to avenge Palestinian deaths], of course, collapses the distinction between Israeli Jews and those from European countries, making a mockery of the distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. For the terrorists, it is a distinction without a difference.


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