different from/than/to

The last post, on numbers, is currently number 2 on the list of most-commented upon posts, second only to toilet. This probably has something to do with the fact that it was posted shortly after this site was chosen as a Yahoo pick. (Yahoo!) It probably also has something to do with the fact that the subject got changed in the comments section (probably more than once). One of the topic-changing culprits was Howard, of the UK-US Forum. (For one of my rants on topic-changing, see this post. Hey, I'm a Libra with Virgo (AmE-preferred) rising/(BrE-preferred) ascendant. I can't help my need for order.)

In spite of the hard time I've given Howard (or, as I've started referring to him, Naughty Howard) about topic-changing, I must admit that it's a topic I've meant to cover. So, most is forgiven, Howard--but I'm still going to think of you as Naughty Howard, due to my naturally stubborn and sadistic nature (which can't be too serious, considering the Libra factor).

So, readers, fill in the blank in the following sentence:
British English is different ____ American English in many ways.
If you answered from, then congratulations! You are a citizen of the world, who uses the only variant on this phrase that is said around the Anglophonic world and the only variant that is universally considered to be "correct" by the people who make declarations about such things.

If you said than, then you're most likely North American. Note that objections to this form have softened through the years. For instance:
Different than has been much criticized by commentators but is nonetheless Standard [in American English--L.] at most levels except for some Edited English. Consider She looks different than [she did] yesterday. He’s different than me (some additional purist discomfort may arise here). You look different than he [him]. The problem lies in the assumption that than should be only a subordinating conjunction (requiring the pronouns that follow to be the nominative case subjects of their clauses), and not a preposition (requiring the pronouns that follow to be the objective case objects of the preposition). But Standard English does use than as both preposition and conjunction: She looks different than me is Standard and so is She looks different than I [do]. And with comparative forms of adjectives, than occurs with great frequency: She looks taller [older, better, thinner, etc.] than me [than I do]. Still, best advice for Formal and Oratorical levels: stick with different from. --Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993.

If you said to, then you're probably British, although you might be from a Commonwealth country. Or you could be me. For some reason, different to entered my grammar quite soon after I moved here. I thought I was being really "native" when I used it in a draft of a document for students. But my fellow American (and BrE pundit), the late, great Larry Trask, took me to task for it, saying that it was non-standard BrE. I can't find anyone else who feels so strongly about this as Larry did, but then again, there are fewer British style guides on the web---and I'm not in my office with Fowler's and Oxford Style at the moment. My Concise Oxford only says that different to is "less common [than different from] in formal use". Someone in a forum at this site reports:

Fowler's Modern English Usage, Second Edition
different. 1. That d. can only be followed by from and not by to is a SUPERSTITION.

But someone else on the forum (not citing which edition of Fowler's--and that matters a lot!), claims that Fowler's is completely intolerant of different than, claiming that if one needs to have a than there, then different must be acting as an adverb, and therefore should be differently, as in This soup tastes differently than it did last night. Now, since taste is a sense verb that acts as a linking verb, it can occur with an adjective (you wouldn't say This soup tastes spicily, would you?), so I'm not sure that commentator had his/her facts right. If I were a responsible blogger, I'd wait until Monday to post this, so I could look it up myself. But instead, I'll be lazy and hope that one of you will do it! The 3rd edition, please!


  1. When I was at school, admittedly a long time ago, using 'to' in an essay would lose marks.

    'From' is the correct British (and I suspect 'colonial' too) usage.

  2. From Fowler's 3rd ed.:
    "The commonly expressed view that different should only be followed by from and never by to or than is not supportable in the face of past and present evidence or of logic, though the distribution of the constructions is not straightforward." He goes on to note the view of The Oxford Guide to English Usage (1993), which says that sometimes different than allows you to avoid repetition, giving the example, "I was a very different man in 1935 from what I was in 1916," which could be recast as "I was a very different man in 1935 than in 1916."

  3. Thanks Dan H! You are reference book hero of the day!

  4. What do people use when they want to say "it's no different from/to/than....."?

  5. Without wishing to be naughty, I raise the question of the differences between Fowler's second ed. and the third. I had no idea that their was a third edition [I bought my copy (2nd) second hand (probably from someone who had recently upgraded)], and the one I just ordered has been revised (2004).

  6. David Morgan-Mar helpfully conducted a poll (almost two years ago, I see now - I didn't even remember I'd been reading Irregular Webcomic for that long.

    As can be seen the only proper answer is "British English is different but in a way that celebrates its diversity and values its equality in regards to American English"

  7. "in regards to", sili: that's surely v American?

  8. dearieme, you've fallen into that BrE-speakers' trap of assuming that something that's incorrect is AmE. I can tell you from reading a hundred essays last month that 'in regards to', 'with regards to' and all sorts of other 'regards', that this usage is very much used in BrE. There are a half-million google hits for "in regards to" on .uk sites. I don't think there's any reason to believe that it's come to BrE from AmE (or vice versa).

    jhm, the third edition of Fowler's, edited by Robert Burchfield, was published in 1996.

  9. "I can tell you from reading a hundred essays last month that ...".

    But but but, that's cos the young speak Californian. Not very well, I'll grant you, but they are trying.

  10. Yes, very trying (sorry, couldn't resist)

  11. Dearieme, I'll take your word for it.

    I'm reading this blog in a feeble attempt to rid myself of too many bad habits developed by growing up on more US sitcoms, than UK detective shows.

    And because it's entertaining and generally educational.

    I obviously don't know the nationality of the person who saw fit to hack that poll. If you ask nicely, DMM might be able to dig up the IP, but I doubt it after so long has passed.

  12. James, in the previous article which I so naughtily ;-) hijacked, asked:

    > Howard: Do you say "other than" in BrE? There is no comparison there.

    I'd answer that yes, I do say this, mainly because "other to" and "other from" are not really available. Also I'd say "rather than" for the same reason.

    I speculate that to BrE ears "other" is a word of comparison, despite what James says, though exactly why, I can't put my finger on at the moment (it is, after all, Monday morning as I write this!) Perhaps it is because "other" ends in "-er", or more likely that to say that something is "other than" something else, you must have compared them.

    "Different" is, well, different, and does not feel like a comparative; this is why you can, if you want, make it into a comparative adjective by putting "more" on to the front of it and then following it with "than", as in "cabbages and kings are more different than oranges and lemons". You don't however tend to say "more other" (well, perhaps you might, if you were translating a 4th Century theologian debating the more abstruse qualities of the Divine Logos as against the other parts of the Triune Godhead, but I - ahem - digress!)

    There is more discussion of "different than" at alt.usage.english FAQ, which also gives some useful statistics from the Collins Cobuild Bank of English.

  13. As an American English speaker, I think I use "different from" and "different than" in different contexts. To me the "from" version sounds like a very direct comparison. I tend to use it when both phrases being compared are short, and are of equal importance in what I'm trying to say. So I would say, "British English is different from American English." But I tend to use "than" when I use one concept as a jumping off point to make a lengthy statement about another concept. So, for example, "You're talking about tenure-track faculty. That's different than being a part-time lecturer who doesn't know if their contract is going to be renewed and who doesn't have any say in the running of the department." Notice the "than" buried in there.

  14. In "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim, at one point Little Red Riding Hood sings "Nice is different than good." Which always struck me as horribly, horribly wrong.

  15. I seem to be very much in the minority, but when filling in the example on the post (British English is different ____ American English in many ways.)I had a very strong instinct towards putting "to" in the blank... I have absolutely no argument in support of its correctness though.

    "from" also sounds acceptable to me, but "than" sounds strange. I don't remember ever being corrected one way or the other on this issue.... and have never noticed or thought about it before... which makes it an excellent topic for a blog post in my book.

  16. As an American copy editor, I "correct" the phrase often to read "different from," which reveals two things. 1) Whoever wrote our house style guide firmly believed in "different from." 2) A lot of authors (and this is nonfiction here, if it matters) use "different than" without a second thought...otherwise, I wouldn't have to correct it so often.

    Bill Bryson has his answer to the question in Troublesome Words, but I don't have my copy handy. Anyone else got it?

  17. I always say from because it seems part of a set: similar to / different from.

  18. In AmE it's "in regard to," not "in regards to." (Paul Brian, in his Common Errors in [American]English Usage, OKs "with regard to" and "in regard to," but says "in regards to" is substandard: http://wsu.edu/~brians/errors/regard.html) AmE chops off the "s" from many words: backward, toward, forward. Their "plural" form is to me a dead giveaway that the user is British or Canadian.

    However, we do give our regards to Broadway!

  19. Actually, towards and similar are common in many dialects of AmE as well as in BrE. But that's another matter!

  20. Hi Just found your site looking for information on "are digestive biscuits the same as graham crackers" and really enjoyed your posts...I will be visiting often.

  21. I would use "different than" in writing, but I confess--I would use "different from" if I were simply speaking aloud to someone. But someone saying "She does it different than me" would grate on my nerves like nails scratching a chalkboard.

    Also, I agree with Meg's observation that they are used in different situations. (I'm from Kansas origianlly, by the way.)

  22. What's irritating is when people write something like, "American English is different then British English." Then!

    Is my eye the only one that twitches?

    I filled in the blank with /than/. I said the phrase out loud... it doesn't sound weird using /from/, but it doesn't quite flow out of my mouth. But that may be because I'm just used to saying /than/.

  23. Nancy - as a BrE speaker, I would say in regard to as well.

  24. sarah: the complement of "similar to" is not "different from", it's "dissimilar to". "dissimilar to" also bolsters the acceptability of "different to", just as "other than" supports the case for "different than".

  25. Just to share some other sources:

    Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition (p.210): "The phrasing different from is generally preferable to different than, but sometimes the adverbial phrase differently than is all but required [she described the scene differently than he did].

    From Bill Bryson's Troublesome Words, p. 56: different from, to than. There is a continuing belief among some writers and editors that different may be followed only by from. At least since 1960, when the Fowler brothers raised the issue in The King's English, many authorities have been pointing out that there is no real basis for this belief, but still it persists.
    Different from is, to be sure, the usual form in most sentences and the only acceptable form in some, as when it precedes a noun or pronoun ('My car is different from his,' 'Men are different from women'). But when different introduces a clause, there can be no valid objection to following it with a to (though this usage is chiefly British) ot than, as in the sentence by John Maynard KeynesL 'How different things appear in Washington than in London'. . .

  26. as a Brit I think part of my loathing of "different than" is because to my ear "than" is used solely (?) with a comparative, and "different" is not a comparative. "More different" is however, so it would sound fine to me to say for example, "these three buttons are more different than those three buttons".

    As to "to" or "from", both are fine by me.

  27. This is probably the only usage difference between USA and UK which REALLY bothers me - almost like the "moist panties" reaction some people suffer. As a Scot with a wife hailing mostly from California, I meet all the usual variations and am OK with them, but for some reason, 'different than' has my back hairs on end.

  28. I'm afraid I can't remember where I found these stats, but I have a note that the Collins Cobuild Bank of English shows the choice of preposition to be distributed as:

    "from" "to" "than"
    ----- ---- ------
    U.K. writing 87.6 10.8 1.5
    U.K. speech 68.8 27.3 3.9
    U.S. writing 92.7 0.3 7.0
    U.S. speech 69.3 0.6 30.1

  29. The above information can be found here: http://www.alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxdiffer.html

  30. British English differs from American English in many ways; the two are different in many ways. But I can't say that one is different from/than/to the other.

  31. I accidentally used "separate to" in the phrase "your encryption key is stored in a separate file to your encrypted password". Is this another manifestation of the same phenomenon or have I just murdered English grammar?

  32. In the given sentence, i would use from, however, if the sentence did not end in, "in many ways," I would use than. I'm from Ohio and am positive that in school we did comparisons with different than and same as in math, and probably other subjects, too.

  33. For centuries, educated people knew that the prefix dis-in its various forms, including dif- meant 'from'. This knowledge was forgotten but its legacy is a preference for following from, which I share with many/most BrE speakers.

    The rise of following to is natural enough, given parallels with in contrast to, contrary to etc. I doubt if I ever notice whether somebody has said or written different to rather than different from. But different than always stands out as odd. One of those things we take to be an Americanism that probably really is one.

    I must caveat that. What stands out as alien is when different is followed by than and a noun phrase. The examples quoted above

    "I was a very different man in 1935 than in 1916."
    'How different things appear in Washington than in London'

    have different followed by phrases that are adverbial in function and prepositional in form. Because they aren't noun phrases, they don't stick out.

    I can't agree with the blanket rule that than is pan-dialectal preceding a clause. To my ears, Meg's

    That's different than being a part-time lecturer

    is just as alien as

    different than me.

    However, I might well not notice than before a finite clause

    It's different than what it was last time we spoke.

    Strangely, the oddity of than seems to dissipate when different is used 'attributively' before a noun

    a different answer than the one she gave yesterday

    Myself, I think I'd prefer

    a different answer to the one she gave yesterday

    although I'd probably prefer from in

    his answer was different from hers

  34. Here in the Midwest US (southern Illinois), I've been hearing a lot more "different to" in the last couple of years. No idea why. I use both "from" and "than", with the former more on written stuff and the later more conversationally.


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)