The difference between both…

Unlike Dutch, English uses “the two” or “the two of them” and not “both” for comparisons and differences.

The Dutch term for “both” (beide) can be used as if it refers to each of two entities separately, but in English it’s more of a collective. Probably best shown with a couple of examples.

  • Both teams play in red at home.
    That’s fine: playing in red applies to the collective concept of “both teams”.
  • The difference between both times is four seconds.
    No, that doesn’t work. You’re comparing one time, individually, against the other, individually. You have to say The difference between the two times is four seconds.”
  • Both boys are equally tall.
    Nope. The two of them are equally tall. Or both boys are six foot three (that’s not a comparison).

Note that the wrong format raises a question in response, in which the pairing is seen as a whole. The difference between both times (assumed to be identical) and some third time is four seconds? Both boys are equally tall (they’re the same height) as, perhaps, the tallest girl in the class?

Prevalence: moderate. Not a very common issue.
Frequency: high. Quite high, because “both” for “beide” is an automatic usage that most Dutch writers wouldn’t think twice about.
Native: not often. But the last example in particular might turn up, particularly in children’s speech.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

2 thoughts on “The difference between both…

  1. Both commonly misunderstood, and Dunglish at its finest! With the correlative-junction usage: unlike “zowel… als…”, which can go on to ennumerate various items ad infinitum, “both… and…” is a “two’s company, three’s a crowd” affair (so not “BOTH the man AND the woman AND the dog AND the cat are…”). This seems to be a quirk of English not shared by other Western European languages.

    Liked by 1 person

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