Same difference

July 31, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

A reader writes that hearing people say different than grates on her. Having been taught that different from is correct, she looks for validation. 


As is so often the case in English, the actualities are more complex than what people recall that they were taught in school. 

We'll start out with what Bryan Garner says. 

"Different than is often considered inferior to different from. The problem is that than should follow a comparative adjective (larger than, sooner than, etc.), and different is not comparative. ... Than implies a comparison ... but differences are ordinarily qualitative, not quantitative, and the adjective different is not strictly comparative. Thus writers should generally prefer different from. ..."

But you saw he started out with often considered. There's more: 

"Still, it is indisputable that different than is sometimes idiomatic, and even useful, since different from often cannot be substituted for it--e.g.: 'This designer's fashions are typically quite different for men than for women.'

"Also, different than may sometimes usefully begin clauses if attempting to use different from would be so awkward as to require another construction. ..."

You can go to Garner's Modern American Usage for his examples in each case. 

This question whether different can be considered a comparative has required the expenditure of considerable sums on ink, but Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage simplifies the issue:

Different from is ... standard in both British and American usage; different than is standard in British and American usage, especially when a clause follows than, but is more frequent in American." 

The acceptability of different than when a clause or condensed clause follows than is the conclusion that Theodore Bernstein reaches in The Careful Writer after spilling a couple of pages of ink. 

Here are a few examples from MWDEU that show unobjectionable uses of different than:

From Thackeray's Pendennis: "She, too, had one day hoped for a different lot than to be wedded to a little gentleman who rapped his teeth."

From a letter of Flannery O'Connor: "Our emotions in the 20th century are affected by different conditions than in the 13th."

From Joseph Heller's Catch-22: "Life in cadet school for Major Major was no different than life had been for him all along." 

The O'Connor example has one of those condensed clauses: "different conditions than [they were] in the 13th." 

My guess is that different than grates if it is used directly before a noun ("Chalk is different than cheese") but sounds natural when used with a clause, as in the examples above. 

Not to complicate your lives unduly, but the Brits like to use different to, and that is perfectly idiomatic and acceptable in Blighty. 

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