I thought these things were different than they used to be. – James Thurber
If you see nothing immediately wrong with the phrases different from, different to, and different than, you might be surprised by all the ink spilt, keys poked and eyebrows furrowed over their respective permissibilities. Not only is different than often mistakenly called a mistake, it has been described as flagrant, eyebrow-raising, revolting, abominable, and ridiculous. More on that later. First, an introduction to the use and distribution of the expressions.
Different from is by far the most widely used and accepted form, different to is common in British English, and different than is spoken regularly in different varieties of English, including US English and BrE. All have their uses. The predominance of different from, particularly in written English, is shown by these figures from the Collins Cobuild Bank of English, which I found at alt.usage.english:
and in the following ngrams of instances in BrE and AmE texts:
Searches in American and British corpora show some of the many ways these expressions are used. The voluminous Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) offers a historical survey of both usage and commentary, and concludes that all three “have been in standard usage since the 16th and 17th centuries and all three continue to be in standard use”. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (CGSAE) concurs: all “are Standard and have long been so”.
The critics, however, have not been dissuaded. The Shorter OED tells us:
Different to and different than are often regarded as incorrect, though used by many well-known writers since [the 17th century]; different than is now almost exclusively used in North American English, where different to is rare.
The American Heritage Dictionary elaborates:
Since the 18th century, language critics have singled out different than as incorrect, though it is well attested in the works of reputable writers. . . . Different than is more acceptably used, particularly in American usage, where the object of comparison is expressed by a full clause: The campus is different than it was 20 years ago. Different from may be used with a clause if the clause starts with a conjunction and so functions as a noun: The campus is different from how it was 20 years ago.
Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Guide to English Usage supports the point about how each form has its particular virtues:
Different from, the more common, works best when followed by a noun or a pronoun. [the new proposal is very different from the old one] [her view is so different from his]. Different than works best when a clause follows [expecting a different result than to be left penniless] [she looks little different now than we remember her from our school days].
And yet. Browsing the internet for opinion on the matter, we meet a mass of peremptory protest, which I must now counter-protest. Different than is not grammatically incorrect, nor can it be dismissed as a common grammar error or an eyebrow-raising gaffe, let alone one of the 10 dumbest grammar mistakes. It is neither a nasty and glaring error nor a flagrant grammar mistake that makes you look stupid or dumb. You may call different than abominable, but this is a matter of taste. You may call it ignorant, but you would be wrong, and unaware of the unfortunate irony.
These judgements, whether rude or neutral, newly acquired or long indulged, are pet peeves. They have nothing to do with grammatical correctness. Any suggestion that different than/to is grammatically incorrect, end of story, would have dissolved in a few minutes’ research or by consulting a single reliable authority.
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