How different? Or how deaf are you? (1/4)

Posted on Thu 26 Apr 2012 @ 10.36am UTC

QUESTION: Do we say different from or to or than?

Until my upstairs neighbour Johnny put this question to me yesterday, I didn’t realise many native English speakers in fact have trouble with this themselves.

(Notwithstanding his name, Johnny is Chinese and is still in school, so we could now appreciate the problem of from/to/thanmust be quite massive for foreign learners.)

First, we’ll kick off with what the ‘issue’ is really about and then move on to what the venerable (venereal?) authorities tell us. Later, we’ll finish off with the lowdown, protips and Question Time in the later instalments.

* * *


What is the difference in different from vs. different than vs. different to?

Is there actually any difference?

Which one is more correct than the others?

* * *


To cut a long story short, all the major dictionaries published by Oxford, Cambridge, Longman, Collins, Hamlyn, Webster’s, etc (plus the online dictionaries) take the same line that different from is the standard usage and different than/to as correct but non-standard usage.

Authorities I have used for this article:—

  • AHD = The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th edition, 2000)
  • C = Collins English Dictionary (1994)
  • L = Longman Dictionary of English (1997)
  • OED = Oxford English Dictionary
  • W = Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English (Third College Edition, 1988)

Additionally, I have looked into a couple of legal cases (mainly in English/British law) that partly involved contestations of word meanings, but I shan’t be citing those in this article because it just confuses things overall and just sounds so pretentious.

A roundup of all their positions:—

All three expressions

  • No difference in sense between the three expressions (OED)
  • All three expressions are used by respected writers (all)

This means all three expressions may be used interchangeably and that we may rely on writers of the past as our authority for such use.

The constructions different from, different to, and different than are all found in the works of writers of English during the past. (Collins English Dictionary, 1991-2003)


There is in fact a lot of confusion about the word different, especially in the grammarfag camp (surprising in itself).

Many discussion threads on the Internet are filled with heated debates and arrogant displays of academic wankery that different is a comparative so it must be different from (because of differ from).

Those people are just trying to show off their supposed literary education or to evince Classical Latin/Greek airs — and then bungle it.

Different is not a comparative adjective, dimwit. Differ and different are different words with different meanings. You’re either different from something or you’re not. You can be taller than me, but you can’t be ‘differenter’ than me. Learn English, or starve.

Different from

  • Different from is standard usage by consensus (all)
  • It is the most common form in both British and American English (all)

Different than

Since the 18th century, langauge critics have singled out different than as incorrect, though it is attested in the works of reputable writers. (AHD)

  • Different than is non-standard usage by consensus (all)
  • However, than is standard usage in comparatives and superlatives (all)
  • No justification for some people criticising different than as incorrect (all)
  • The construction with than (after other than) is found in Shakespeare, Donne, Chaucer, Bacon, Fuller, Addison, Steele, Defoe, Richardson, Goldsmith, Miss Burney, Coleridge, Southey, de Quincey, Carlyle, Thackeray, Newman, Trench, and Dasent, among others (OED)
  • Mainly or more acceptably used in or as colloquial American English (OED, AHD)

Non-standard does not mean incorrect:—

Different than is more acceptably used, particularly in American usage, where the object of comparison is expressed by a full clause” (AHD)

Different to

Everybody disses different to, but the truth is:—

  • Different to is non-standard usage more common in British than American English.
  • It is a colloquial British usage and more acceptable in British English.

* * *


This section is going to be a HUGE disappointment to many grammarfags.


1. FROM whenever a noun follows

When dealing with nouns, always use different from. (AHD)

A book is different from a scroll. (Not than)

From is a preposition here.

Protip: In the SAT, when a question asks for either different from or different than, the problem will nearly always deal with nouns. Therefore the correct answer is nearly always different from.

2. FROM when comparing two persons or things

“According to traditional guides, from is used when the comparison is between two persons or things” (AHD)

My book is different from yours. (Not than)

Marvellous. But what about three or more things?  It seems we may have to play it by ear and do it like this:—

My book is different from his or yours.

My book is different from theirs.

It would’ve been goddamn more useful if the authorities tried to be a little more goddamn authoritative just for five bloody minutes.

3. FROM or THAN when introducing a phrase

When introducing a phrase (i.e. one without a verb), you have the choice of using different from or different than. (All)

This carpet is different from the one in the catalogue. (1st choice)

This carpet is different than the one in the catalogue. (2nd choice)

Underlined are the phrases.

4. When introducing a clause, it depends

A clause contains a verb.

The situation is a bit more complicated when dealing with clauses because we need to switch between from and than depending on the clause after it.

(1) Use THAN when introducing a full/dependant clause (AHD, C, W)

Your hair looks different than it used to before my blind uncle cut it.

The campus is different than it was 20 years ago.

Here, than is a conjunction, not a preposition. Clauses are underlined.

(2) Use FROM when introducing a clause that starts with a conjunction (AHD)

The campus is different from how it was 20 years ago.

Here, the underlined clause functions as a noun. How is the conjunction in the clause, so from is a preposition.

(3) Use FROM when introducing a clause if more words are added (AHD, C, W)

5. THAN with comparatives and superlatives

Different than is standard usage with the comparative (more-er) and superlative (most-est) degrees. (OED, W)

The campus now is more different than it was 20 years ago.

Jane is most different than the other two girls.


This subsection is probably the worst-possible news for the grammarfag anywhere.

From, than and to may all have to be considered as standard usage in certain instances because they impart nuances in meaning that different from is unable to do. (All)

“Sometimes people interpret a simple noun phrase following different than as elliptical for a clause, which allows for a subtle distinction in meaning between two constructions” (AHD)

How different this seems from Paris. (1)

How different this seems than Paris. (2)

Sentence (1) suggests that the object of comparison is the city of Paris itself.

Sentence (2) suggests that the object of comparison is something like ‘the way things were in Paris’ or ‘what happened in Paris.’

Remark.—This stuff is bad news to grammarians and grammarfags mainly because:—

(a) those guys are often deaf and blind to nuances in meaning generally, and

(b) it totally goes against the grain of their penchant for putting things into nice little neat packages when the meanings of our message may not necessarily be nice, little, neat or packageable.




© Learn English or Starve, 2012.

Images: Dictionary via Maritime Sun | Apple-orange via | Live Dif’rent via God, Men and Money | Nuanciation via Le Garde-mots.

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