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That's Not a Knife!

Or, “You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to”.

In this blog post, I will attempt to share some of my current thoughts and related ideas on “Distinction without a Difference”.


In a famous scene from the 1986 movie “Crocodile Dundee”, the titular character and his friend are approached by a mugger who brandishes a knife. Croc’s friend nervously notes, “He’s got a knife!”, to which the unflappable hero calmly observes the knife, chuckles, and then disparagingly replies, “That’s not a knife…” before pulling a much bigger knife of his own and adding, “That’s a knife!”

An amusing scene, but…what exactly is going on? Could it be that Crocodile Dundee didn’t see the mugger’s knife? Perhaps he doesn’t recognize a knife when he sees one? Or…is something else going on?

Distinction without a Difference (also sometimes called a “Phantom Distinction”) is “a linguistic or conceptual distinction which is of no practical importance or which has no effect on meaning”.

There are many examples of Distinction without a Difference in other domains, such as literature, history, and even advertising (“It's not a car... it's a Volkswagen”). But why? If there is no real difference, then what is the purpose, reason, or goal of the distinction? What is the motivation?

There might be many motivations. It might be to provide some social or political commentary (such as "That's not a lie. It's alternative facts."). Or, it might be to advance some hidden agenda ("I'm not drinking alcohol. I'm drinking beer."). Or, it might even be to try and raise or lower some status (a standing in relation to someone or something else).

In the example above, I think that Crocodile Dundee made the comment in order to raise his status while simultaneously lowering the status of the mugger. Croc was trying to intimidate the mugger. He certainly understood that the mugger had a knife. But, along with displaying a much larger knife, he was able to further frighten the mugger with his words.

In My Experience, seeking to discover the intended motivation for a particular Distinction without a Difference can lead to better, deeper communication and understanding. With time and practice, I’ve become better at recognizing a Distinction without a Difference. And, when I do, I often try to uncover and understand the motivation for the distinction, which often helps me better understand exactly what is going on.

I examine and explore “Distinction without a Difference” in my talk “Word Smatter”.

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