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Different from, different than, different to

Short answer:

Different to and different than are perfectly fine, but some people consider them wrong, so different from is the safest choice.

Some careful English speakers consider different to and different than problematic. The argument is that things differ from each other, and they don’t differ to or differ than each other, so different from is the only logical construction. But there are problems with the arguments against different to and different than, and the old prejudice against these phrases should be laid to rest.

First, one point in favor of different to and different than is that these constructions are common and have been common for centuries. They have appeared in works of great writers and can be found in books from editorially fastidious publishers, and no English speaker has trouble understanding them. Different than, which is especially common in the U.S., appears about twice for every three instances of different from in 21st-century newswriting from the U.S. and is common (though less so) in American books from this century. Different to, meanwhile, is nearly as common as different from in recent U.K. newswriting and is easily found in U.K. writing of all kinds not just from this century but from as long ago as the 18th century.

Plus, the argument against different than in particular is not well founded. Granted, than typically follows comparative adjectives (e.g., brighter than, less easy than), of which different is not one. This is not a rule, though, and than would not be the first word in English to have multiple uses. But the than in different than doesn’t even need to have its own definition. The word primarily means in comparison to or in contrast with, and these senses are perfectly in keeping with the word’s use in different than.

We could make similar arguments about different to. To, a versatile preposition, has numerous definitions (the Oxford dictionary lists a few dozen), several of which could be used to justify its use in making comparisons and drawing contrasts.

Different than also aids concision. Consider the sentence, “He is different than he was yesterday.” People who are very strict about these things might find fault with that sentence, yet it is more concise than the alternative, “He is different from how he was yesterday.” Also consider the sentence, “The movie had a different meaning to me than to him.” It would be possible to rephrase this sentence to use from instead of than, but all the alternatives would be wordy.

No matter what we say, however, keep in mind that there are people who consider different than and different to unequivocally wrong, so it’s a good idea to approach these phrases with caution in writing for work or school.


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Adverbial constructions

Much of the above extends to adverbial constructions such as differently than and differently to. Both are common, yet some people consider them wrong.

Again, than constructions promote concision, especially when introducing independent clauses—for example, “You sing differently than I do,” is more concise than the from alternative, “You sing differently from how I sing.”

Examples

Here are some examples of different than and different to constructions in action over the last two centuries:

“Such fickleness! Oh! How different to your brother and to mine! I really believe John has the most constant heart.” [Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1817)]

On other minds this circumstance might have operated far differently than it did on the mind of Captain Hardinge. [The Naval Chronology of Great Britain, James Ralfe (1820)]

You stood opposite to me in the bright firelight with a face changing and flushing like a girl’s, and a happy youthful buoyant gladness in it very different to your usually quit aspect. [Mrs. Lirriper’s Legacy, Charles Dickens (1864)]

And, when I looked at him now, it was plain to me that he was of a race different to my own, just as he had always seemed different from any other man. [The Inheritors, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford (1901)]

f the object of the Grand Duke Nicholas was to attack Cracow frown the south his position will not be very different than it was when Przemysl fell. [New York Times (1915)]

He did not look very different than usual. [Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway (published 1970)]

People they spoke to there described what happened in the shootings differently to how the army did. [BBC (2005)]

An Iranian representative said it was no different than his country using the IPU forum to call for international support of Quebec independence. [Globe and Mail (2012)]

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Comments

  1. I’m not getting this. I thought “than” could only come after a comparative adjective. Can you give an example of “than” used without either a comparative or “different?”

  2. I like your open-minded attitude on this one. I used to feel very strongly about different from being the only acceptable form, but I’m evolving. I can see why foreigners might be confused though.

  3. I am a bit confused too. Different can be modified by “more” so does that not make it comparative? While you wouldn’t say, “this is more different than that,” for example, you might say, “this is more different from that than the other,” wherein a comparison is made between three or more things. The same argument can be made for the word similar.

    • Justin Won says:

      By the way, you cannot say “where in a comparison is made between three or more things” because you cannot use the conjunction “between” for “three or more things.” It is grammatically correct to say “among three or more things” here.

  4. reardensteel says:

    Alright, how about this.

    When you compare two (or more) things, you measure a specific characteristic that both of the things have such as weight, temperature, or strength.
    So both things might be heavy, hot, or strong, but one might be heavier, hotter, or stronger.
    “Today is hotter than yesterday.”
    The essence of the heat is the same for both days, but the degree of heat is not.
    Therefore than compares a shared trait.

    To identify a difference between things, however, is to say that the essence of the things differs.
    So one food may be salty and another one sweet.
    Salty is different from sweet; they do not share the same essence.

    Consider:
    “The taste of peppers is stronger than the taste of potatoes.”
    “The taste of peppers is different from the taste of potatoes.”
    The first statement does not say anything about the essence of the taste; it compares the amount of taste in each food.
    Peppers and potatoes may very well have the same taste, albeit not the same degree of it.
    The second statement doesn’t address the amount of taste; it declares that the essence of the two tastes is not the same.
    The two foods may very well have the same amount of taste, but not the same kind of taste.

    The notion of separation inherent in the word from makes it preferable for use with different.

  5. To me ‘different from’ doesn’t always reflect the nature of the relationships in the differences being highlighted, for example when I’m comparing a ‘this’ to a ‘that’. So for me, I always use ‘that is different from this’ (that over there compared to this here) or ‘this is different to that’ (this here compared to that over there). I think this imparts useful information about relationships that only ever using ‘different from’ cannot do.

    ‘Different than’ however is just nonsensical. ‘More different than’ is quite another matter.

  6. Jake Johnson says:

    This article needs to distinguish between British and American English. The phrase “different to” would never be considered correct in 20th or 21’s century American English. “Different than” would be considered folksy or semi-literate.

    • “semi-literate”! That’s a pretty strong way to describe a usage which is extremely common in all forms of writing, has a long history, is completely unambiguous, and is useful. Those complaining that it’s wrong because “different” is not the same kind of word as “brighter” do not seem to realise that languages are not 100% regular.

      • reardensteel says:

        You are correct that different than is so common it cannot be associated with a lack of literacy anymore.
        Still, different and brighter are not the same kind of words.

  7. Dougal Dogham says:

    Yes, bigger than, smaller than, but not different than. How can this be different than that? Different to, different from, and more different than are correct.

  8. I’m confused too. If we simplify and break it down using letters to represent the two things being compared – like in algebra – then we have ‘A is different FROM B’ which, to me, sounds very wrong. ‘A is different TO B’ however sounds correct. Surely one thing is different TO another thing and not FROM another thing??

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