Grammar Chaos: How Can Something So Similar Be So Different?

Posted on Feb 06, 2019


Different and indifferent are two words that sound like they are related. The only difference between the two is the prefix in-. Using context clues, we could infer that indifferent could mean “same” since the prefix in- makes the root mean the opposite.


However, that inference is wrong. Different and indifferent may look and sound similar, but they’re meanings are pretty, well, different.


Let’s start with the easier of the two. The word different is an adjective which means “not the same, various, diverse, or unlike most others.” Different has its roots in the Latin verb differe, which means “to set apart.” Here are some examples of its usage.

  1. The competition guidelines are different from last year’s.
  2. Ella went to five different schools growing up.
  3. This jacket is different from the ones on the rack.

On to indifferent. This word is also an adjective. Indifferent means “not caring, uninterested, or apathetic.” Like the previous word, indifferent also comes from the Latin verb differe. Here are some examples of its usage.

  1. Craig was indifferent to the exam results since he was exempted from taking the test.
  2. She wasn’t fond of animals so she was indifferent to shows on Animal Planet.

The word indifferent was also once used as an adverb, but now its usage is obsolete. As an adverb, indifferent meant “to some degree.” This usage was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here’s an example of how it was used as an adverb.

  The region’s topography is characterized by indifferent high mountains.


Now we know that both words have the same root, but why are their meanings far apart? As the English language continued to evolve, the two words got lost in translation. Adding the in- prefix to the original Latin root differe gives us something close to “not set apart” or, eventually, “neither good nor bad” or “not more or less advantageous.” Eventually, the word started to refer to neutrality with a suggestion of negativity.


That’s the English language for you—no matter how similar words may be, they could end up meaning different things. This is why we shouldn’t be indifferent to learning new things.




Disclaimer: Images are not ours. Credit to the owner.

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