The word 'flash mob' is older than you might think. Next post: Words that are older than you think, Part 2

Why doesn' the plural of sheep have an 's'? Previous Post: The plural of sheep and other plural questions

Different than, different from, or different to. Which one is right?

Different than, different from, or different to?

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.
F. Scott Fitzgerald 1926

It’s a situation that crops up all the time – you want to contrast people or things, describing how one is not the same as the other, so you use the adjective different, and decide to follow it with one of three prepositions (either from, to, or than) to introduce the second element of the contrast. You then happily compose your statement, for instance:

Your goals may be different than mine.

But tread carefully! The topic of which preposition you choose has been a grammatical minefield for many years. F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows with his famous use of different from in the quotation at the start of this piece, but had he instead written ‘They are different than you and me’, some traditionalists would have started gnashing their teeth. Many people aren’t greatly enthused about the phrase different to, either.

Why should this be? When we consult the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for the broader historical picture, we find that different to predates other phrases, being evidenced from the 16th century; different from is first recorded in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors; different than also first appears in writing in the 17th century. In fact (those of a sensitive grammatical disposition should look away now), there was once a time when different against was also possible, as evidenced by this OED citation:

Humane wisdome, different against the divine will, is vaine and contemptible.

However, that formation is only recorded in the 17th century and now appears to be as dead as the proverbial dodo, leaving the three main contenders, different from, different to and different than, to be squabbled over by many writers on grammar and usage.

According to the language expert Michael Quinion and others, the issue of ‘correctness’ or otherwise with regard to prepositions accompanying different first arose in the 18th century, and since then some authorities have ruled that you should only ever say different from, raising stern objections to the other options.

British English is different to American English

In a moment, I’ll take a look at the reasoning behind these objections. From the outset, though, I should stress that, no matter what any die-hard sticklers may say, all three prepositions are broadly acceptable accompaniments to different in today’s English, and all have been used by respected writers such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway. The differences in current usage tend to reflect which variety of English you speak. Research on the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) clearly shows the distinctions:

Form Total occurrences on the OEC British English American English
different from 61,475 12,318 (20.1%) 28,481 (46.3%)
different to 9,945 4,371 (43.9%) 1,238 (12.4%)
different than 12,736 793 (6.2%) 8,811 (69.2%)

Different from knows no regional boundaries and is by far the most common pattern of the three. If you favour different than, you’re highly likely to be a speaker of American English. Different to is very frequent in British English, although 12.4% of instances of that phrase are also found in American English.

The case for different from

The argument for different from is based on the fact that different is related to the verb to differ. Some traditionalists believe that because differ is conventionally followed by from (as in this war differed from any other previously fought) when making a distinction, different should only be accompanied by the same preposition.

This means that different to is frowned on: however, this argument falls flat when you compare other pairs of words and prepositions. The verb accord is followed by with (e.g. this decision accords with international norms) whereas the related adverb according is typically accompanied by to, and no-one expresses grammatical dismay about that.

In defence of different to, we could also reason that (as pointed out in Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage), English operates by analogy: patterns of usage tend to be influenced by similar structures. With different to, the pattern shows a relationship to some adjectives which are also used to make comparisons or contrasts and which are followed by a preposition–for instance, comparable, dissimilar, and similar may all be used with to, so why shouldn’t different to also be acceptable?

Lemar’s route to success isn’t dissimilar to that of Campbell.
Preparing bison meat is comparable to preparing other lean meats.

Talk about insurance with the proprietors of businesses similar to yours.
This is completely different to any other champagne I’ve ever tasted.

While all the above examples sound natural to British English speakers, different to still causes many American English speakers to raise an eyebrow–they may not view the phrase as incorrect, but many would think it odd.

Different than

The reverse applies with different than, which although it’s fairly well established in American English sounds unfamiliar to most British ears. Objections were first raised against different than in the 18th century, when than was classified only as a conjunction. It was argued that since than was used to accompany comparative adjectives (as in the house is larger than all the surrounding buildings) it could not, therefore, be used with different as different isn’t a comparative adjective.

Nowadays, grammarians accept that than plays other roles in a sentence. As well as being used in comparative structures, it’s also found in expressions to make exceptions or contrasts (i.e. just as different is) and functions as both a conjunction and a preposition:

He owns nothing other than his home. (preposition)
They observe rather than act. (conjunction)

In its favour, different than can be followed by a clause, meaning that sometimes you can express yourself more succinctly than if you use different from (which needs to be followed by a noun or pronoun). As you can see, using than in the following examples results in a more concise statement than if you use from:

Things are different than they were a year ago.
The scene was totally different than we had expected.

Things are different from the way they were one year ago.
The scene was totally different from what we had expected.

In fact, some US style guides advise against using different than unless it’s followed by a clause. My example at the beginning of this blog (Your goals may be different than mine) would therefore be disapproved of, as mine isn’t a clause.

So to sum up: different from, different than, and different to are all broadly acceptable and have the same meaning. Using different to in America would mark you as a British English speaker, while different than is likely to identify you as American in the UK. However, should you wish to avoid raising the hackles of traditionalists, or if you have to write for an organization or institution whose style guide lays down rules on the matter, stick to different from, and everyone should be happy!

Finally, one to watch…

Language is in a continuous process of evolution and modern research methods using huge databases enable us to monitor developments with ease. The Oxford English Corpus has evidence that the verb differ is now being accompanied by to and than as well as by from. This doesn’t yet happen to a significant extent, but there are some interesting instances which occur in both writing and speech, as these examples show:

Does your live sound differ to your sound on record? (British English)
Its characteristics differed to all of the other financial assets in the portfolio. (Irish English)
How does this procedure differ than more traditional means of biopsy? (American English)
We’re Texans, so we might differ than someone else who isn’t a Texan. (American English)

Perhaps we’re seeing a development (again because English works by analogy) in which the structures different to and different than are influencing the use of differ and chipping away at the dominance of differ from. It appears that, mainly in British English, differ is starting to be used with to, whereas in American English, differ than is an emerging formation. This change is outside the margins of standard English at present, but you can be sure that lexicographers will be tracking it over the coming years to see if it becomes more widespread.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.