Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Different from, to, or than?

with 16 comments

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This bicycle is different from any other.

Or should that be ‘different to’? Or even, ‘different than’?

Well, this may raise a few hackles because all three are apparently fine. See Oxford Dictionaries.

I personally dislike ‘different than’ and apparently there have been protests about this construction since the eighteenth century. (I’ll sign that petition.)

My preference is ‘different from’, and this is the construction most used in the UK and the States.

So the only rule here is to choose which you prefer, abiding by any house style rules that apply to you, and don’t mix and match between them.

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16 Responses

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  1. I have to disagree about house styles being applied to points of grammar when the rules should be clear. Your examples, however, are problematic as they have become determined by popular usage. No stylebook would deter ne from using both “different from” and “different to” according to my own judgement. As for “different than”, this was the first time I’d ever seen or heard of it! 🙂

    Tony

    15/04/2010 at 11:20 am

    • Hi, there — many thanks for your comment and sorry for the delay in publishing and replying; your comment got thrown into the spam for some weird reason and I have only just spotted and retrieved it.

      Your point about obeying house rules when they seem to clearly contradict basic rules of grammar is a very interesting one. Some newspapers, for example, have rules which must drive some of their reporters to distraction. I’m not sure what the solution would be! I think you’re right to choose the construction you prefer. ‘Different than’ is a strange one — I always avoid it. But that’s just me! Thanks again.

      Deborah

      16/04/2010 at 1:08 pm

  2. I was reading about this point this morning while sitting and waiting to be called. I’ll post a good example later today in which “than” seems best. To me, this is an example of distinctions that do not matter one whit to the reader or hearer’s comprehension.

    Michael Farrell

    15/04/2010 at 7:23 pm

    • Thanks, Michael — I’ll be very interested to see the example you mention.

      Deborah

      15/04/2010 at 7:28 pm

  3. I was always taught it’s “different than” and “differ from”

    Petra

    15/04/2010 at 7:50 pm

    • Hi, Petra — you’re very welcome here. Thanks very much for your interesting comment; I think I may have been taught something similar. The whole ‘different to/from/than’ thing can provoke a lot of disagreement and discussion. However, as explained in the post above, it really is a matter of personal preference (or abiding by house style rules if any apply to you). Thanks again.

      Deborah

      15/04/2010 at 7:59 pm

  4. “Different from” doesn’t always work: “The word has a meaning different from that which I thought it had.” (But the best cure for that sentence would be to recast it.)

    “It has possessed me in a different way than ever before.” (Card. Newman) “How different things appear in Washington than in London.” (JM Keynes)

    “Different from” works best in front of a noun: “Boys are different from girls.” But not always: “The attitude among these Ivy Leaguers is much more different from people elsewhere.” (Weak because it unevenly contrasts attitude with people.) “But the Pac-10 and the Big Ten might have a different goal than we do.” (I guess you could say “from us.”)

    Pat O’Conner suggests using “different from” almost always, since it’s almost always right. But in front of a clause (a subject and verb), she says either is fine: “Respectability is different than it was 50 years ago.”

    Michael Farrell

    16/04/2010 at 2:45 am

    • Thanks for taking the time to share all these examples, Michael — very interesting. Here’s what I think:

      The word has a meaning different from that which I thought it had.

      Did you mean that ‘different from’ doesn’t work here and should be ‘different than’? I don’t think that’s necessarily so, although as you suggest, I would definitely rewrite the sentence to make it less ugly. (I thought the word meant something different, for example.)

      I think the following sentences work better with ‘than’ because ‘than’ doesn’t directly follow after ‘different’ (so the – ugly to my ears –‘different than’ construction is avoided):

      It has possessed me in a different way than ever before.
      How different things appear in Washington than in London.

      Again, I agree that the following sentence needs rewriting to improve its clarity, but I don’t object to the ‘different from’ per se:

      The attitude among these Ivy Leaguers is much more different from people elsewhere.

      Again, in the following sentence, ‘than’ does not directly follow ‘different’ (see point above):

      But the Pac-10 and the Big Ten might have a different goal than we do.

      I agree that ‘than’ works in the following sentence:

      Respectability is different than it was 50 years ago.…but I would definitely rewrite it:

      Respectability was different 50 years ago.

      Deborah

      16/04/2010 at 6:25 am

  5. Pat O’Conner also says to use “differ from” with things and “differ with” with people (i.e., disagree). (Note that “differ” is a verb while “different” is an adjective.) So you’d say: “Pundits differ with each other over usage.”

    In either case, you can drop the preposition: “Sally wants to keep driving; her car differs.” Or, “Climate change seems real, yet experts differ.”

    Michael Farrell

    16/04/2010 at 3:02 am

    • Thanks for that clarification, Michael.

      Deborah

      16/04/2010 at 6:36 am

      • PS. Interestingly, the Oxford Dictionary of English only cites the following use of differ in relation to people:

        ‘He differed from his contemporaries in ethical matters.’

        No mention of ‘differ with’ as an alternative.

        Deborah

        16/04/2010 at 9:41 am

        • Ha! So maybe it doesn’t matter? I suppose your example might mean that, to an observer, their stances or attitudes differed; not necessarily that “he” disagreed with his contemporaries.

          Michael Farrell

          16/04/2010 at 2:12 pm

          • I don’t think it matters, but it is interesting.

            Deborah

            16/04/2010 at 2:18 pm

  6. Different from, similar to; “than” is comparative – greener-, taller-, dumber-, than, etc.

    That’s what I was taught, and any deviation will result in a rumbling noise in the background – my old English master, turning in his grave.

    Ron

    19/04/2010 at 6:32 pm

    • Hi, Ron — I really like those guidelines. They are very clear and easy to remember and I don’t think anyone would go far wrong in following them. Thanks very much.

      Deborah

      19/04/2010 at 6:40 pm

    • Ron: Then your old English master, if he can hear across the Atlantic, must be now spinning. We use “different than” frequently, but rarely use “different to” (which seems to be common in the UK). Your point about “than” as a comparative is logically a good one, but it’s been crushed over here by contrary usage.

      Michael Farrell

      19/04/2010 at 7:10 pm


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