I received a request for grammar help from an English teacher in Iran. I love grammar, and I love helping people use English well. I also have a fondness for teachers, having been an English teacher years and years ago.
With permission from my new friend in Iran, the question and my answer are below. How would you answer this question, and do you agree with mine?
Which of the following options is correct?
A) Is there any difference between strange and peculiar in English?
B) Are there any differences between strange and peculiar in English?
Unfortunately, this is one of those questions with more than one answer.
If we ask, “Is there any difference,” then we assume that there might be ONE difference. If we ask, “Are there any differences,” then we assume that there might be MORE THAN ONE difference. Both are correct, depending on the interpretation.
For example, we can ask, “Are there any differences between cars and bicycles?” We can then list many differences. However, we can also ask, “What is the difference between cars and bicycles?” We then need to provide a single defining difference, such as they differ in how they are propelled.
Generally, however, when we are discussing word meanings, we use is. Another, more common, way to ask this question is, “What is the difference between strange and peculiar?” This form of the question indicates that they have one difference (i.e., the one difference is that they have different meanings).
Short answer: Both are right.
Best answer: The first sentence is the typical way to ask this question.
This answer isn’t clear-cut, I know, but that’s the fun of English.
(Update on my answer: We can rephrase this question as “How do the words strange and peculiar differ?” and avoid the problem.)