Don’t write ‘different’ if you mean ‘various’

In reviewing draft documents, I often used to come across cases where someone had written different where they really meant various. Although this was particularly common for people who learnt English as a 2nd language, people with English as 1st language often make the same mistake as well.

Let me give an example:

(1) translations of a well-known novel into various languages

Phrase (1) is talking about translations from language A into a variety of languages, for example, languages B, C, D, …

(2) translations of a well-known novel into different languages

Phrase (2) is talking about translations from language A into more than one language, each of which is different from language A.

Does it really matter?

Now, the meanings of phases (1) and (2) are very similar to each other. So, listeners and readers will probably take the same message from both phrases. Nevertheless, even in this case, there are good reasons for writing and speaking more carefully:

  • Phrase (1) states explicitly that there is a variety of target languages. But phrase (2) does not say this explicitly: it says only that there is more than one target language. So, for example, if there are 2 target languages and they are similar to each other (say, Swedish and Danish) phrase (2) would be accurate, but phrase (1) might not be true. Swedish and Danish might not differ from each other enough to be viewed as constituting a variety of languages
  • By its very nature, a translation is from one language into another language (or languages). So, in phrase (2), different is tautologous: it adds no meaning.   

Watch out for ambiguity and distorted meaning

People often use different when they mean to refer to a variety of items.  In the example above, careless use of different instead of various might lead to inelegant or annoying wording, but probably wouldn’t cause a major problem. But in some cases, using different can cause ambiguity or distort the meaning. Consider sentences (3) and (4):

(3) Various approaches, such as approaches A, B and C, would solve the problem.
(4) Different approaches, such as approaches A, B and C, would solve the problem.

Sentence (3) says that a variety of approaches (A, B and C) would solve the problem.

Sentence (4) says that more than one approach would solve the problem, but it doesn’t make it clear whether the approaches are only different from each other or whether they are (also or instead) different from other approaches.

For example, suppose that a earlier part of the same text discusses approach D and, in addition, that the writer can reasonably assume that readers would also be thinking of approach E. Sentence doesn’t make it clear what the writer is trying to say:

  • only that approaches A, B and C all differ from each other?  If this is the intended meaning, various would probably work better than different.
  • that approaches A, B and C all differ from approaches D and E? If this is the intended meaning, it may be better to say that more explicitly.

Writing and editing tip

If you write something including different (eg different languages or different approaches), consider whether you would convey the intended meaning if you replaced different with a variety of (eg a variety of languages or a variety of approaches):

  • if so, various would probably be clearer than different.
  • if not, you may need to spell out more clearly which other items are different from the items mentioned.

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