The Lowdown on Different Than



Those who care about language sometimes discover they’ve been misled. Teachers, parents, or other trusted authority figures have been known to proclaim as rules what turn out to be myths, opinions, or whims about English usage.

In recent years we have debunked some of these baseless “rules,” and gotten a lot of heat from frustrated readers. Who can blame them?

Yet today we’re at it again, taking on another long-standing commandment: Always say different from because different than is incorrect. Upon further review this rule cannot be substantiated.

It has some impressive defenders, though: “In educated American usage, one thing is different from another, not different than another” (Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line). “Comparative adjectives take thanDifferent takes from” (John B. Bremner, Words on Words).

Most writers prefer different from over different than when the phrase precedes a noun or pronoun: Dogs are different from cats. But different from does not always work preceding a clause. Consider this sentence: It is no different for men than it is for women. Using different than results in a clear, straightforward sentence. The supposedly grammatical alternative would be bloated and clumsy: It is no different for men from the way it is for women.

In Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words Bill Bryson cites this sentence: How different things appear in Washington than in London. If we changed the sentence to How different things appear in Washington from how they appear in London, Bryson states, “all it gives you is more words, not better grammar.”

“The idea that there is anything wrong with different than is a superstition,” says Roy H. Copperud in his Dictionary of Usage and Style. Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage concurs: “No one has any grounds for condemning others who would rather say different than, since this construction is used by some of the most sensitive writers of English and is in keeping with the fundamental structure of the language.”

Does this mean you should now write different than every chance you get? We certainly wouldn’t. There may be nothing grammatically wrong with different than, but it remains polarizing. A is different than B comes across as sloppy to a lot of literate readers. If you can replace different than with different from without having to rewrite the rest of the sentence, we recommend doing so.

Posted on Tuesday, June 23, 2015, at 11:04 am

6 Comments on The Lowdown on Different Than

6 responses to “The Lowdown on Different Than

  1. Jaime Potter says:

    Something struck me in reading this article and thinking back on past ways you’ve ruled on disputed questions of the English language: how do you decide who is the final authority in a given instance? In this article, you quote Copperud as saying, “No one has any grounds for condemning others who would rather say different than, since this construction is used by some of the most sensitive writers of English and is in keeping with the fundamental structure of the language.” Here, he has made his ruling by citing “sensitive writers.” I know you conscientious folks at GrammarBook typically try to cite multiple sources, thereby triangulating your evidence, often quite thoroughly, but I can also think of past examples where you’ve similarly used the opinion of a given writer to help corroborate your point of view. So, back to the main point, what/who is the final authority on these disputes? In other words, if Mark Twain wrote using one specific rule, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that he was wrong, who am I to trust?!

    • There is no easy answer. All of our sources are serious scholars, and when they are unanimous, that settles that. When there are differences, we must consider a number of criteria, including changes brought about with the passage of time. This is a hard matter to generalize about. If you have specific questions, we could give specific explanations for our conclusions.

  2. Rick says:

    “It is no different for men than it is for women.”

    Your analysis of this sentence seems a little strange to me. This sentence surely means “It is the same for men as (it is) (for) women”; or, alternatively, “The differences among men are no larger than (those) among women”. The “than” here doesn’t appear to belong to the expression “different than” but rather to a comparison that isn’t spelled out.

    Since that “different than” is widely used nowadays, my argument is perhaps of only academic interest, but I believe that the verb “differ” still is used with “from” rather than “than”. If only to maintain a parallelism that I like for logical and aesthetic reasons, I use and encourage students to use “different from”.

    There are also edge cases where “from” is clearly better. Compare:
    A is more different from B than C is from D; and
    A is more different than B than C is than D.

    • As we wrote in the post, “A is different than B comes across as sloppy to a lot of literate readers. If you can replace different than with different from without having to rewrite the rest of the sentence, we recommend doing so.”

  3. Courtney says:

    I have a question that I could not find a blog or answer to anywhere. I learned that prepositions are “locators in time and space” and so why is “there” not a preposition? We use it as a location all the time. “standing there,” “over there,” “where? There.”
    Can you answer this for me?
    Thank you

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