Diving Back Into Different From and Different Than



It’s déjà vu for linguistic purists and caretakers of American English: We’re reading an article, having a chat, listening to the radio, or watching TV, and we receive the expression that something is different than something else.

We close our eyes, lower our chin, softly sigh, and shake our head.

No matter what we do, we just can’t make it stop.

We touched on this topic in 2007 and then again in 2015. In those entries—one short, one more in depth—we reinforced that different from is the standard phrase and that careful scholars and writers often avoid different than. William Shakespeare himself chose different from in The Comedy of Errors: “This week he hath been heavy, sour, sad / And much different from the man he was …”

We also identified that both different from and different than have been circulating for centuries, often interchangeably, even among reputable writers. In addition, we pointed out that the common aversion to different than may be more magnified than needed.

We’re revisiting the subject because the line between different from and different than only gets thinner. We could even argue that different than is overtaking its counterpart, gradually in writing and rapidly in speech. The mainstream has instituted this grammatical mutation—it’s here to stay.

Today, we maintain that in most cases different from remains the preferred usage for astute writers and grammarians. At the same time, we acknowledge that proper English retains room for different than when used with savvy awareness.

Conceding to both phrases as lasting, we follow up to offer you, our careful-writer community, additional insight in helping us continue to apply them with polish and grace.

Different from is a separating phrase followed by a noun or pronoun.

Alone, the adjective different is not comparative; it differentiates one thing (noun or pronoun) from another.

Examples
My guitar is different from your ukulele.

I just noticed the blouse I bought last week is different from yours. I had thought they were similar.

Different than is a comparative phrase usually followed by a clause.

The logic here is than typically follows a comparative adjective such as stronger, shorter, or simpler or a comparative phrase such as more colorful or more legible.

Examples
John is stronger than Thomas.

Her handwriting is more legible than his.

The same reasoning applies to when we wish to use different than. The distinction is we will most often follow different than with a clause instead of a noun or a pronoun. Than thus serves a sentence as a conjunction that sets up the clause.

Examples
The cuisine was different than he thought it would be. (We can interpret this sentence as being more comparative than separating; different than further lets us be vague if we wish or need to be: perhaps the cuisine was better than he thought it would be, or maybe it wasn’t.)

Her mood is different than it was yesterday. (Again, another suggestive comparison with room to be vague if it’s needed: maybe her mood is better, or maybe it’s worse. The writer might have a reason to keep it open ended.)

Different than followed by a clause also sounds crisper than if we clung to our purist’s alternative:

The cuisine was different from what he thought it would be. (Because different from separates instead of compares, this statement could also imply the food itself was different, e.g., fish instead of meat, as opposed to general cuisine prepared by college interns instead of professional chefs, which could indicate a comparison.)

Her mood is different from what it was yesterday. (Beyond adding a word, the phrase makes the statement more stilted.)

If our inner purist demands we stand by different from—i.e., we insist on (correctly) conveying separation—we would simply replace the clause with a noun or a pronoun:

The cuisine was different from his idea of it.

Her mood is different from yesterday’s. (This is also perhaps more-concise writing.)

On a related note, the verb differ always pairs with from. The adverb differently can take either from or than depending on the writer’s aim for concision in expressing comparison or separation:

You do that differently than I do (as opposed to You do that differently from how I do it).

In the end, this topic is a matter of extra-fine nuance often noticed only by alert and knowledgeable readers. Many people will not distinguish the phrases but rather use them interchangeably or prefer different than in everyday communication.

Let that not deter us, however: as grammarians and careful writers, we can still maneuver the space that will always be a push and pull between a phrasal yin-yang.

 

Pop Quiz

Based on our current discussion, choose the phrase that best suits the context. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1) The dresser in Julia’s room is (different from / different than) the one in Cristina’s.

2) Jason solved that puzzle (differently from how / differently than) Jacob did it.

3) This season’s concerts in the park (differ from / differ than) last season’s.

4) The play the coach called was (different from / different than) the one the quarterback wanted to run.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1) The dresser in Julia’s room is different from the one in Cristina’s.
The statement is more separating than comparative. Another sign pointing toward different from is the noun—“the one”—(as opposed to a clause) that follows the phrase.

2) Jason solved that puzzle differently from how / differently than Jacob did it.
If the observer is expressing that Jason’s solution is better than Jacob’s (faster, more thorough, etc.), then differently than is correct. However, if expressing only that the solutions were different (i.e., separating them), then differently from how is preferred. Note here also the use of a clause—“Jacob did it”—instead of a noun or pronoun after the phrase; this may often lean toward differently than.

3) This season’s concerts in the park differ from last season’s.
Differ than is never correct.

4) The play the coach called was different from the one the quarterback wanted to run.
Since we can’t know what the outcome was of the play the quarterback wanted to run, we can only say the plays were different and not that one was better than the other—i.e., the statement is more separating than comparative. Therefore, different from is preferred. Also note the use of a noun (“the one”) instead of a clause after the phrase.

Posted on Tuesday, September 5, 2017, at 11:15 pm

12 Comments on Diving Back Into Different From and Different Than

12 responses to “Diving Back Into Different From and Different Than

  1. Jane says:

    Well…this grammar issue is really different than a lot of the more important ones. See…that didn’t sound so bad! Ha

    Seriously, this is one of those grammar questions that bothers me a whole lot less than so many of the other more important ones, probably because it’s not really so incorrect after all. The reason ‘different than’ is not so troublesome to me is that it not only sounds okay most of the time but if you know the definition of ‘than’, it actually fits. Think about it.

  2. Patrick Daly says:

    As with many other usages which I would have associated with American English, “different than” seems to be beginning to get a foothold in conversational Irish and British English. Also common, at least on this side of the North Atlantic, is the “different to” usage, for example: “My gas boiler is different to yours.” The “different than” usage is generally derided over here; I’m not sure what drives the choice of “to” or “from”, but I seem to favo(u)r the “from” usage myself.

  3. Carol says:

    First, allow me to write that I enjoy your blog very much. So I bring this issue up in the spirit of seeking further clarification.

    Regarding your example: “I just noticed the blouse I bought last week is different from yours. I had thought they were similar.”

    Using the word “similar” instead of the phrase “the same” muddies the meaning of this sentence for me. Had you used the words “the same,” it would make perfect sense. But the intentional use of the word “similar” implies, by definition, that the blouses were not identical, and therefore, they were different, making the whole sentence nonsensical. Where have I gone wrong?

    • The dictionary defines the word similar as an adjective meaning “having traits or characteristics in common; alike; comparable; having a likeness or resemblance, especially in a general way.” The meaning implies correlation short of being a match. The interpretation in this context would depend on the reader. If one reads further into it, one can argue the blouses are different by virtue of not being a match. At the same time, another reader, understanding “similar” as meaning “comparable” and “having a likeness,” may envision two distinctly separate, unlike blouses because of the reference to “different.” We can agree that using “the same” instead of “similar” would leave no room for such interpretation.

  4. Tim Higgins says:

    What about “different to?”

    • British English uses “different to” more than we do in America and has some basis in logic. However, American writers almost never use the device, finding it unnatural to our syntax and cadence (unless you’re using it in the context of something like Your hair looks different to me today).

  5. Nan says:

    I have another phrase that hurts my ears even more than “different than.” Radio and television announcers, movies and friends, have unanimously decided to say “talk with” rather than “talk to.” I have even heard this used by teachers. Personally, I think it has a basis in the ever growing liberal population that thinks it is warmer and friendlier to talk with someone. I had a fairly educated friend of mine tell me that if you say “talk to,” you are excluding the person that you are talking with. Yikes! I would like to hear your response to this.

    • We understand what you’re saying; however, grammatically either preposition is acceptable according to intent. If we are talking “with” someone, it’s clear it’s a two-way exchange. If we are talking “to” someone, the “to” implies direction. While most people will understand what we mean when we say we’re “talking to” someone, “talking to” does not by its components instantly convey a two-way exchange.

  6. Jim Lynch says:

    Everything is so much easier in Spanish. If it’s comparative, it’s than (que); if it’s superlative, it’s from (de). There will never be any change in meaning no matter what preposition you use. Sometimes English grammar rules are silly, just ask an ESL student.

  7. Debbie says:

    How does the phrase “is not as” fit with different from and different than?

  8. Roseanna S. says:

    Phrasal yingyang—seems like a lot of fuss about nothing to me.

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