How different? The gurus speaketh (2/4)

Posted on Sat 28 Apr 2012 @ 8.19am UTC

← PART 1 | PART 3 →


PREVIOUSLY, we looked at the positions of various standard dictionaries on use of different from vs. different than vs. different to.

We now turn to the prognostications of usage experts.

* * *


Paul Brians

Common Errors in English Usage (2nd edition, 2008/9)
(Published by William, James & Company, Sherwood, Oregon, USA)

Paul Brians is emeritus professor of English at Washington State University. His book has become one of the most popular usage reference books in recent years.

In most discussions about language usage, name-calling and fingerpointing tend to dominate. Often, everything is decidedly branded right or wrong outright, with little or no middle ground.

To that, Prof. Brians has this to say:—

“The concept of language errors is a fuzzy one. I’ll leave to linguists the technical definitions. Here we’re concerned only with deviations from the standard use of English as judged by sophisticated users such as professional writers, editors, teachers, and literate executives and personnel officers. The aim … is to help you avoid low grades, lost employment opportunities, lost business, and titters of amusement at the way you write or speak.” (Link)

(My boldfacing for emphasis.)

I reckon you and I might consider business executives (and personnel officers especially) a bit of a stretch as sophisticated. I can’t vouch for teachers either.

Not to put too fine a point on things, it’s teachers who are largely responsible for the language problems we see swirling around us all the time today — but that’s another story for another day.

As to different from vs. different than, Prof. Brians had this to say:—

Americans say “Scuba-diving is different from snorkeling,” the British often say “different to” (though most UK style guides disapprove), and those who don’t know any better say “different than.” However, though conservatives object, you can usually get away with “different than” if a full clause follows: “Your pashmina shawl looks different than it used to since the cat slept on it.” (Link)

(My underlining is to show the clause.)

The part about different from being American and different to British is not strictly accurate. Most British and Americans use different from in both speech and writing by default, in fact. The older generations and the well-read are even likelier to do that.

Indeed, if you (like me) watch and hear enough unrehearsed on-location interviews and ‘soundbites’ from 1960s- and ’70s-era British and American TV news, it’s hard not to notice that different from was used many times more frequently than different than/to.


Mark Israel

The alt.usage.english (‘AUE’) newsgroup

Mark Israel (d. 2008?) was a respected member of the respected AUE newsgroup before his untimely death. He once wrote a very short piece that:—

Different from is the construction that no one will object to. Different to is fairly common informally in the U.K., but rare in the U.S. Different than is sometimes use to avoid the cumbersome different from that which, etc. (e.g. “a very different Pamela than I used to leave all company and pleasure for” — Samuel Richardson). Some U.S. speakers use different than exclusively. Some people have insisted on different from on the grounds that from is required after to differ. But Fowler* points out that there are many other adjectives that do not conform to the construction of their parent verbs (e.g., accord with, but according toderogates from, but derogates to).” (Link)

* H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926)

Even from that paragraph alone, we can see Mark Israel was evenhanded and easygoing about usage.

It’s also rather clever of him to just mention the often-cited to differ without saying anything combative that it’s the wrong (and lousy) basis for using from. He was playing ‘softball’ here so some of us now have the legroom to tell the morons that differ and different are different words with different meanings, and that different is not a comparative (as differ is).

Helpfully, he provided frequency figures from the Collins COBUILD Bank of English to show the distribution of preposition use after the word different:—

This little chart hides a multitude of useful insights. We’ll come back to it in the next instalment of this article.


Jim Loy

Multi-award-winning American writer

Back in 2002, Jim Loy wrote that using different than is

“… just one of the many grating ways that we Americans abuse the language”


“The trouble is that ‘different than’ makes little sense; it is sloppy language. We should be saying ‘different from’.” (Link)

Only an American should think it an abuse of the English language at the sight of deviations from standard usage.

An Englishman (or Englishwoman) would most likely say, ‘Well, that’s the way we speak it, innit? I understand’ya awright, no harm done. Just ignore them. They’re just jealous.’

Jim Loy’s observation is that different than is rare in American writing (7%) and British writing (1.5%), and this is in line with the Collins COBUILD figures.


Theodore Bernstein

The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (1965)
(Publisher: Atheneum Press, New York: now part of Simon & Shuster Inc.)

Assistant Managing Editor of The New York Times
Professor (1925–50) at the Columbia University School of Journalism

Theodore Bernstein (1904–1979) wrote or co-authored many books on real-life English grammar and usage based on many years of collective newsroom experience. His books are continually reprinted, and three of his books that I like best are:—

  • Headlines and Deadlines: Manual for Copy Editors, with Robert E. Garst (Columbia University Press, 1933, 1983)
  • Bernstein’s Reverse Dictionary, with Jane Wagner (New York : Quadrangle/New York Times Book Company, 1975/76)
  • Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usagewith Marylea Meyersohn and Bertram Lippman (New York: Times Books, 1977)

I don’t own any copies of them. I just read them at the library whenever I need to.

Trivia: In fact, I own only one dictionary, one paperback usage guide, one professional editing reference and one law dictionary. Four in all. I’d rather spend money on food, booze and chicks any day.

To cut a long story short, Bernstein recommends:—

  • Different from when a prepositional phrase follows
  • Different than when a conjunction introducing a dependent clause follows (even if much of the dependent clause is elliptical)
  • Different than is sometimes preferable to different from (but he’s rather vague as to why this is all right)

Basically, Bernstein say people use different than/to because of three influences:—

  • than, they think different is a comparative adjective (it isn’t) so it should take than (as in the case of better than or faster than)
  • than, because of false comparatives like other than
  • to (chiefly among the Brits), because of false comparatives such as in contrast to.

Different here is not actually a comparative — it is a word used for making a distinction (just like separate fromdistinct from and apart from do).

I have to say Bernstein is right about different to — it’s easier to say This blanket is different to the catalogue picture than This blanket is different [in contrast] to the catalogue picture [of the blanket]. Most British people are elliptical in speech as they are in mentality anyway.

Protip: Tell the grammar morons to piss off. Different may have its roots in the verb to differ, but the two are different words. Different is not a comparative — otherwise we would have words like ‘differenter‘ or ‘differentest.’ End of discussion.

Protip: Some idiots just won’t let go: different from because it’s to differ from. Very well, then explain to me would you still use the word gorgeous in the original meaning of ‘full of gore,’ or as ‘splendid and sumptuous’ as nowadays? Schmuck.

Many academics and academically inclined people have a rather misleading view of themselves in that they think they ‘work with words.’ That may be true enough insofar as academics write lots of words.

Truth is, academics work in and with their fields of study. Their flood of words is just a manifestation of their teaching work and research, but that’s about all there is to it. Academics don’t have to compose words under the fearsome, frantic and frenetic pressure of time and various other aggro that professional writers like journalists and editors have to deal with on a daily (or nightly) basis.

Academics are not required to come up with 13½ column inches of copy preferably under 30 minutes that’s fairly readable by the masses even if has to ‘run’ without the 5-minute last-call editing before presstime. Every day, every night.

Truth is also, people such as Bernstein know what they’re talking about — and they rile the grammar bunch no end.

Bernstein belonged to that generation of newspapermen who (in addition to ferreting information and interviewing people for their stories) had to put together two daily editions back in the newsroom using only manual typewriters and send off paper copy every 15 minutes or so for hot-metal typesetting. They work extremely fast and have learnt the knack to get practically everything right at the get-go. All these and more without Internet or mobile phones (or even sandwiches). These are not people disposed to suffer academicised dicking-around.


Jane Straus

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (2007)
(Publisher: Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons Inc.)

Jane Straus (1954-2011) was another well-regarded grammar and usage guru. Indeed, her book has a foreword by the Grammar Girl a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty (who I understand is also pretty famous).

Basically Straus said:—

  • Different from and different than have been used interchangeably for at least 300 years

Lots of people (mostly grammarfags) can’t stand being told this by Straus, but look up the Oxford English Dictionary and you will find this to be true.

Her recommendations:—

  • Different from (first choice) or different than (second choice) when introducing a phrase (one that doesn’t contain a verb), e.g.

Cantonese phraseology is different [from/than] Mandarin phraseology.

  • Different than when introducing a clause (one that contains a verb), e.g.

Cantonese phraseology led to a different literary culture than Mandarin phraseology did.

  • Different from (again) may be used when introducing a clause if more words are added, e.g.

Cantonese phraseology led to a different literary culture from the one that Mandarin phraseology led.

Usefully (to stop the grammarfreaks’ faggotry), Straus provided extra recommendations:—

  • Differently than with a clause following because differently is used as an adverb, e.g.

You talk Cantonese differently than he talks.

  • Differently from may be used instead if you add extra words, e.g.

You talk Cantonese differently from what he hopes to talk after taking lessons.


There are many more grammar and usage experts around, but 90% of them give roughly 95% of the same advice, so there’s no need for me to name-drop.




© Learn English or Starve, 2012.

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