Do You Want to Be Different From, Different Than, or Different To?
by Owen Fourie
To add to the huge amount of writing about the correct word to use after different seems unnecessary.
A search for “different from different than different to” on the Internet will give you some idea of what has been said about this problem.
The hornets’ nest
It is evident that this is a point in grammar that bears some resemblance to the hornets’ nest. Poke it, and you are asking for trouble.
The particular point of delicacy lies in the use of different than instead of different from.
I am not alone in expressing an aversion to the use of different than and a preference for using different from. In an earlier article, I labeled different than as an error.
Several authoritative sources refer to the use of from, than and to after different by famous authors dating back several centuries.
Michael Quinion mentions this in a short and informative answer to a question about the use of different to. Read his item to get an excellent perspective on this matter.
It seems that to wade in on the side of different from is to turn a blind eye to historical precedent and the usage of the other forms—different to and different than—which is not always incorrect.
For me, different from remains the preferred usage, but it is necessary to give place to the other forms if it can be reasonably argued that the grammar is intact.
To say that oranges are different than apples cannot be said to be good grammar.
The good and acceptable habit of using different from is the safest course to take in formal speech and formal writing, not only in the UK but also in North America where different than is accepted more and more in informal usage.
In the quest for brevity, using different than seems to have a small advantage as long as it is followed by a clause:
- Life in America today is different than it was before 9/11.
- Life in America today is different from the way it was before 9/11.
- Life in America today is different from how it was before 9/11.
Different to is seldom used in the US but is common in the UK in informal contexts. As noted by many, Fowler states, “That d[ifferent] can only be followed by from & not by to is a SUPERSTITION.” Therefore, it is not wrong to say,
Some would argue that the National Gallery is no different to the Louvre, but that would be an argumentum a nescientia—an argument from ignorance.
Obviously, where no comparison is being made, to can follow different as a preposition or in an infinitive. From or than cannot replace to in these sentences:
- This poem will mean something different to each reader.
- She will give each child something different to read.
Given the historical precedents of good writing in which from, than and to all follow different and the elimination of glaring misuse, as in “oranges are different than apples,” it is hoped that the hornets’ nest need no longer be disturbed.
Remember, though, that it is safer to use “different from,” than “different than” in formal writing and speech.
Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome. Are there other contentious points of usage that concern you?
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