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The verb 'to defer' (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable de-FUR, IPA: /də ˈfɜːr/) with its related nouns deference and deferment (and deferral) can present a variety of problems.

  • There are two verbs 'to defer' which are, in current English, distinct - and they bear a surprising connection to a third. This is because they all share a root in the Latin differre, from ferre 'to bear, carry' and di[s]- 'apart', 'between', 'un-' etc. So the basic English meaning is 'to put on one side', or 'to put apart'.
Their past forms are deferred; the present participle is deferring (see also Consonant doubling),
    • The older defer was 'to put on one side', and has come to mean 'to put off till later', 'to postpone'.
      • The associated noun expressing this action is deferment, or, rather later, deferral; both are stressed on the second syllable, 'diff-UR-ment', IPA: /də ˈfɜːr mənt/, and 'diff-UR-el', /də ˈfɜːr əl/. Deferral was commonly used for the process of delaying call-up (enlistment) to the armed forces in the USA. The only adjective regularly used is the participial deferred. This is sometimes used in the phrase deferred payment as a euphemism for buying on credit.
    • Slightly later (the earliest quotation cited in OED is 1490) was the meaning 'to refer a matter [usually to a superior] for judgement or decision'. This became extended to the more general 'bow to the judgement of', 'to concede superior knowledge, sense or wisdom [of someone else', and more generally still 'to be respectful to', 'to pay deference to'.
      • The associated noun is deference, which is stressed on the first syllable: 'deference' (DEAF-fur-ence, /ˈdɛf ər əns/, and the adjective deferential.
  • The third - it may be surprising to learn - verb in this group is 'to differ', 'to be unlike' (from something else); and 'to hold an opposing opinion [with, or less idiomatically, from] someone', 'to disagree with'.
      • The noun associated with differ is difference, and the simplest, most direct adjective is different. Differential implies a definition, creation or perception of difference, or making or perceiving distinctions, often on a small scale. It has precise technical meanings in many subjects:
        • in Mathematics and Physical Sciences there are several uses related to the meaning 'calculating (or measuring) very small differences, particularly in the differential calculus to calculate the rate of change'
        • in Business Studies, Economics etc, differential is used, sometimes as a noun, to talk of distinctions, or separate rates, e.g. of prices, wages and fees, varying on grounds of prestige, scarcity or some similar not directly commercial ground;
        • in biological and medical subjects, differential diagnosis is used in identifying dosorders, or species, and distinguishing between similar items, often on the basis of small differences;
        • in computing, various differentials are used in programming;
        • in mechanical engineering, a differential is a form of gearing, or similar, used to distribute forces or speeds, etc, as when in motor cars the output of the engine is shared between the two wheels that are being driven, allowing the vehicle to turn efficiently.
      • The verb 'to differentiate' means 'to make distinctions between', 'to discriminate', and is used to describe the actions implicit in the varied meanings of the adjective differential. The process of doing so is differentiation.

Etymological note (based on OED): the French verb différer, recorded in the 14th century, was used for all senses of the Latin differre: 'to carry or bear apart', 'protract', 'delay', 'defer'; also the intransitive 'to tend apart or diversely in nature or character', 'to differ'. In English, it was taken first in the transitive sense, with second syllable stress (diFFER, like 'confer', 'refer' and 'prefer'). This led to the transitive senses being written defer, like them. The intransitive use 'to be different', copied different and difference in stressing the first syllable. In this way one verb (differre in Latin, différer in French and differre in Middle English) has been split into the two verbs defer 'to put off' [as well as defer 'to be respectful of'] and differ, 'to make or be unlike'.