Different from, Different to, Different than

By Maeve Maddox

We all have our pet grammar peeves, usages that, when we hear them, affect us like the sound of a fingernail against a chalkboard.

I’ll bet I’m not the only one who shudders to hear sentences like these:

A boxer is different than a Doberman.
This car is different to that one.

Yet, are these usages really incorrect?

According to the entry for different from, different to, different than at Bartleby.com,

These three have been usage items for many years. All are Standard and have long been so (different to is limited to British English, however), but only different from seems never to meet objections.

Elements of Style weighs in against different than:

Here logic supports established usage: one thing differs from another, hence, different from. Or, other than, unlike.

From H.W. Fowler comes this pronouncement:

That different can only be followed by from and not by to is a superstition.

He points out that “writers of all ages” have used different to. He does not mention the use of different than.

It would seem, then, that any of the three is acceptable.

Nevertheless, the concluding advice at Bartleby.com agrees with my own:

…for Formal and Oratorical levels: stick with different from.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


62 Responses to “Different from, Different to, Different than”

  • Gwen

    Eeek! I shudder, too, when reading “different than”. Aurally, I might not notice it so much.

    It reminds me of my uncertainty about another expression that bugs me: when people say “waiting ON” someone rather than “waiting FOR” someone. It may stem from my reaction from years of waitressing that I am never, ever waiting ON someone unless as a waitress. Is there a non-waitressing context where “waiting ON” is the correct usage instead of “waiting FOR”? Is the former just colloquial or slang?

  • Maeve

    Gwen,
    I agree that “waiting on” in the sense of “waiting for” is non-standard usage. It’s a regionalism.

    In standard usage “We were waiting on the bus” indicates that the speaker was inside the bus and waiting. I would say “I was waiting for Charlie and not on Charlie, unless I was his waitress. Ladies-in-waiting are said to “wait upon the queen,” in the sense of attending to her needs.

    Another “on” expression that drives me round the twist, but which is very common on TV because of the dominance of the Eastern American dialect in the media, is “waiting on line” in the sense of “waiting in line.”
    I wait in line to buy a ticket, but on line for a slow page to load.

  • Tordek

    The one that turns my Murder Mode on is “Try and hit me”.

    (BTW, Brit punctuation is prettier to me, so that period goes OUTSIDE.)

  • Maeve

    Tordek,
    It has taken a great effort on my part to learn to place the period inside the quotation marks. When in Rome.

  • Hilary

    I was so pleased to know that others out there cringe at ‘different than’ plus, as a Brit, I have taken a long time as well to adjust to putting the comma inside the quotation marks.

    Other grammatical errors which throw me into a Dickey Fit (especially as an English person who was severely rapped over the knuckles in school over these) are the following:

    – he gave it to him and I (instead of me)

    – the person that (instead of ‘who’)

    – there’s lots of (instead of ‘there are lots of’)

    – none of them are (instead of ‘none of them is’)

    While it may be appropriate to have the above errors made in certain dialogue, do we not, as writers, have some obligation to write correctly?

    Perhaps I’m alone in this?

  • Maeve

    Hilary,
    It wasn’t so long ago that American English teachers did the same kind of knuckle-rapping over correct usage — even in Arkansas where I grew up. (You will notice that Bill Clinton, who had some of the same teachers I had, speaks better English than a certain graduate of Yale.)

    You’re not alone in thinking that writers have an obligation to model correct usage. Browse the DWT site for posts on the peeves you’ve listed. Your first example is one of the things I come back to again and again. ( See TV’s War on “Me” and “I”)

    In an effort to do my part in this war against standard English I’ve started my own site called the American English Doctor. It’s targeted to parents of children who attend public schools (American version). Its purpose is to provide parents with the information and encouragement they need to measure their children’s literacy in a meaningful way. Teaching quality varies enormously from school to school and Eduspeak tends to obscure how much learning is actually taking place.

  • Asha

    Let me thank you foremost for starting DWT Vocabulary Test. It is wonderful to have something like this. Took the test and felt that I had answered everything perfectly…but sadly on checking the answers realized that I had scored only 80%. Am sure I will do better next time. Thank you once again.
    Asha

  • Maeve

    Thanks for your comment, Asha.

    Credit for the vocabulary test belongs to Daniel.

  • Ian B

    # Tordek on October 31, 2007 2:44 am

    The one that turns my Murder Mode on is “Try and hit me”.

    (BTW, Brit punctuation is prettier to me, so that period goes OUTSIDE.)
    # Maeve on October 31, 2007 2:52 am

    Tordek,
    It has taken a great effort on my part to learn to place the period inside the quotation marks. When in Rome.

    On this occasion Maeve, the period is correctly plkaced outside the quotation marks.

  • George Craig

    Am I the only one to cringe at using “them” or “their” as singular rather than plural? It seems to have come from TV announcers and others who should know better but are trying to be politically correct at the expense of being grammatically incorrect. Each child is entitled to their education (gee did we blow his or her education.)

  • Robin

    I’m all for adopting “them/they/their” as standard usage for a singular, neutral pronoun. Modern english otherwise lacks such a pronoun, and having to utilize “he or she”, “him or her”, etc. is a mouthful and a ridiculous nuisance. I’m all for doing away with antiquated rules that impose undue hindrance upon standard language speakers. Language rules are not written in stone and can be changed. Same goes for dangling prepositions.

  • Hugo

    Firstly, Glen cannot spell ‘Orally’.

    Second, the information you’ve provided clearly cannot be summed up as
    ‘It would seem, then, that any of the three is acceptable.’
    This is because ‘different than’ is completely out of the question.

    Finally, ‘different to’ is the correct version, end of. ‘Different from’ is a modern phrase that is actually wrong, but hard to prove seeing as so many people use it, including Oxbridge-graduated politicians.

  • Susan

    Hugo, Gwen was quite correct to use “aurally” as that refers to hearing and she was commenting on how she would react to hearing, rather than reading, a phrase.
    “Orally” refers to speaking and it is quite obvious that she would not choose to speak such a phrase.

  • Hugo

    True dat, sorry! Learn something new everyday hey 😉

  • Brian

    Sorry, Hugo (April 22), but ‘different to’ is NOT the correct version, and if you read my reasons (which are just a bit too complex for this space), you will agree with me, I’m sure.

    If you place your e-mail address on this site, I’ll send you the attachment which will change your mind.

  • Hugo

    Sure Brian, amuse me. admin@hoopbots.com

  • Brian

    Hugo: your e-mail address as given had ‘permanent delivery errors’. Please check it or give me an alternative.

  • Hugo

    Yeah, sorry try again please I think it works now 🙂

  • Hugo

    Nah, go for hugobrook@yahoo.co.uk

  • brian

    Same problem, Hugo. Permanent delivery errors.

  • Zaphod

    A question to most on here… Does it matter? Language is organic and constantly changing. There are words and phrases in existence now that were unheard years ago and other ones used in different ways!

    If new words/meanings/semantics become ‘normal’, does that not make them correct? After all, the rules you are using are only set out based on how the language had evolved to the point in time the rules were written.

    As long as the message gets across, isn’t there already enough to worry about in life?

  • Steve Nicholas

    The most important argument for using language correctly is that accuracy of meaning should be maintained. “Waiting on” and “Waiting in” are prime examples. They are used in the same context but one conveys an entirely different meaning from the other.

    Steve

  • beate setzer

    I am appalled at the use of incorrect Grammar in South Africa. In particular the incorrect use of the past tense of the word to lie (down). I constantly hear: I was laying down instead of lying down. And : do you want me to lay down instead of lie down.I wonder what the teachers are teaching these days and i arvel at the good teachers i must have had to teach me correct English as a second language ( although at first language level)

  • Stoph

    ‘Different from’ is correct, and ‘different to’ is passable, although not preferable. However, ‘different than’ is appalling grammar and should never be used. Think about it, the flip-side of it would be ‘similar than’ (should be ‘similar to’). I can’t understand why people don’t hear that it is wrong. ‘Bigger/smaller than,’ ‘more/less/fewer than’ all work. ‘Different than’ only seems to be used in US and, to a lesser extent, Canada. New Zealand, Australia, UK, Ireland etc. wouldn’t say it.

  • Stoph

    No, Zaphod. Not at all. Yes language evolves, but obviously some standards need to be maintained as it can completely alter the meaning, or not make sense.

  • Brian

    OK: despite my note of 25 May above, I will give my full commentary on the ‘different from/to’ debate here. We differentiate one thing FROM another, just as we distinguish one thing FROM another. As I understand the etymology, to ‘confer’ is to carry (ferre) towards or together (con-) and to differ is to carry (ferre) away from (dis-). The directional implication of ‘differ’ is certainly ‘from’ rather than ‘to’. A con-ference is a coming together: a dif-ference is a going apart.

    There is no challenging the logic of ‘different from’, then. But there’s another helpful pair of opposites in this debate. I may liken you TO an ostrich; but if I say you are not like an ostrich, then you must differ FROM an ostrich. Just as ‘liken’ and ‘differ’ imply opposite states of affairs, so ‘to’ and ‘from’ reinforce that opposition.

    There are many Latin words beginning with the prefix ‘dis-‘ which have a basic sense of separation (from): for example, distraho means to pull apart, and the past participle of this verb (distractum) gives us the Englsih word ‘distracted’ (pulled apart). And discedo means ‘I depart from’ or ‘I go away from’ (‘dis-‘ with ‘cedo’, I go). ‘Dis-‘, meaning apart or in different directions, (e.g. disconcerting, disconnected), always becomes (whether in Latin or English) ‘dif-‘ before an ‘f’ (therefore different, diffuse).

    There have been notable instances where ‘different to’ lets us, or rather the user, down. A BBC Radio 4 reporter on 25/09/2002 was wanting to explain that the message Britain was trying to sell to the United nations was different from the message the Americans were trying to sell to the United Nations. But what he actually said was – ‘Britain is trying to sell a different message to the Americans’. (Britain was, of course, trying to sell to the UN, not to the Americans.)

    More ridiculous was a circular letter issued by MacMillan Cancer Relief in 2005, which stated: ‘When men have cancer, they tend to react differently to women.’ In other words, when men have cancer they don’t react to women in the same way as they did before they had cancer. That is what they said, but of course it isn’t what they meant.

    More recently, the BBC told us (06/11/2005) that ‘David Cameron would take a markedly different approach to Tony Blair’. Dave’s attitude to Tone was surely not at issue.

  • Brian

    Upon those broadcasters who, in increasing numbers, speak of ‘colummists’, I can only wish eternal dammation. Before they enter into condemmation of me for this imagined calummy, I am happy to indemmify them with the following ammesty. To earn forgiveness, they need only take a week-long autummal break on the Rommey, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, stopping at every station to eat simmel cake and sing from the English Hymmal.

  • Stoph

    I love you, Brian! The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is good, but yeah, I would hate it after a week.

  • Duncan

    I agree that language should be preserved, but when it’s preserved at the expense of being understandable, then it’s time for hard-line grammarians to back down.

    Language evolves, and we ought to be making sure that it’s Evolving, not DEvolving. That said, the purpose of language is to communicate clearly and practically. While there’s certainly call for a degree of pedantry here, I will always fall on the side of the practical, whether prevailing academic wisdom is on my side or not.

  • George Craig

    It is fun to comment in places like this and it allows us to vent our frustrations. I also learned long ago to vote with my dollars. If I do not like a company, a product, or an advertisement, I do not spend my money there. For example, I no longer buy from Carl’s Jr. / Hardee’s after their ad campaign I call “Trash America” because they promoted littering. I’ll never buy “Omnaris” because they do things “differently than.” You can find your own examples. If you don’t like the way they do things, don’t give them your money.

  • El

    If ever my brother or I make the ‘different to’ error while talking to or near my dad, he corrects us straight away, and I love him for it because I love correct grammar and spelling. Prior to Dad starting his mission to filter out his children’s ‘bad’ language I dont think I realised I was doing it and I am glad I now realise every time I make the mistake. God help anyone who trips up over this grammatical pavement in the same way in front of me from now on.

  • Margaret Dodd

    Brian I love you! You put it so clearly. “Different to” drives me nuts.

  • gaph

    This evening my lecturer commented on my writing, “Well, you can go out if you still use ‘different to'”. Oh, my, I was so embarrassed!

  • sophie

    The increasing unnecessary use of ‘into’ is driving me crazy. Trains, for instance, now arrive ‘into the station’ according to British train announcements. On food programmes ingredients are placed ‘into the bowl’.

    And while I’m at it, there’s a tendency to start using adjectives as nouns, most notably ‘nuclear’ as in ‘After the Japanese earthquake, should we be using nuclear?’ and ‘organic’, as in the current campaign run by the Soil Association with the strap-line ‘I love organic”.

  • Ari

    Hilary,

    About none, the opinion varies across the world. Being Indians, we were taught to treat none as not one (hence the singular verb). However, some of our senior American editors disagree. To them, “None of them are Brits” sounds perfectly okay. None is not always just “not one.” It can also mean “not any.”

    So,
    “None of them are Brits.”
    “Not any of them are Brits.”
    “Not one of them is a Brit.”

    According to them, the ONLY place where “none” takes a singular verb is in the case of uncountable nouns:

    “None of the milk has gone bad.”

    Because of all this disagreement over the usage of “none,” we have taken that question off our editorial test.

    Ari

  • Graham

    Have only just found this site and would like to comment on the original topic.
    “Different to” could possibly be construed as correct if you consider the implied “when compared” between the words. Not my cup of tea and sounds too harsh to my ears. I do prefer and always use “different from”.
    There is no way in the proper English language, even today, that “different than” could be considered correct.

  • Edwin

    It seems that it might just be me that finds “different to” a lot more pleasing on the ears than “different from”, certainly in some circumstances at least.

    If one says, “he is different from the rest,” then that sounds fine.
    However, “I’m different from you,” seems to sound ugly to me and I’m not sure why. In my opinion, “we’re different” or “we’re not the same” seem much more elegant and avoid a grammatical debate.

    In any case, to concur, I never like “different than” but I can’t say that I hear it or see it used too often aside from by those speaking American English.

  • Steve

    I’ll stick with “different to”, thanks. “Different from” sounds cumbersome, and if something can be similar to something else, then it can also be different to something else.

    As for the example, “Britain is trying to sell a different message to the Americans”, I could as easily say, “Britain is trying to sell a similar message to the Americans” and have exactly the same ambiguity you’re trying to demonstrate.

  • venqax

    I think what the article says needs to be re-emphasized: Different to is entirely British. It is not standard or acceptable at all in American, where different than is the problem and different from is the solution. Different to doesn’t even make sense, and I don’t recall ever hearing it in the US. It sounds very “wrong” over here, akin to a mistake a non-native speaker would make.

  • AnWulf

    From the OED:

    usage: Different from, different than, and different to: what are the distinctions between these three constructions, and is one more correct than the others? In practice, different from is both the most common structure and the most accepted.

    Different than is used chiefly in North America, although its use is increasing in British English. Because it can be followed by a clause, it is sometimes more concise than different from (compare “things are different than they were a year ago” with “things are different from the way they were a year ago”).

    Different to, although common in Britain, is disliked by traditionalists and sounds peculiar to American ears.

  • Sheila

    TO is the preposition of connection (married to, similar to) and FROM is the preposition of separation (divorced from, different from).

    Social websites exist to connect us TO others. Bodyguards exist to protect people FROM attack.

  • Brian

    Unfortunately Graham muddies the issue when he suggests that ‘different to’ could possibly be justified if the words ‘when compared’ are inserted – i.e. ‘different when compared to…’. He ignores the old and still logical distinction between ‘compared to’ and ‘compared with’. Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ means ‘Shall I say that you are like a summer’s day?’. But if I compare you WITH a summer’s day, all I am doing is looking at you and a summer’s day and considering how those two things are similar and how they are different. Many people now use ‘compared to’ when they mean ‘compared with’.

    It’s silly not to preserve this distinction, as it impoverishes our language. When I used to set A-level papers I never asked candidates to ‘compare and contrast’, simply because the last word adds nothing to the question: if you compare, you look at the two things under consideration and you say in what ways they are similar and in what ways they are contrasted.

  • Kenneth

    Thanks for the advice and I just found you blog. A really nice one. You got another regular 🙂 Have you ever thought of creating a podcast or something along those lines? I’m sure that there’s a huge audience out there, which is eager to learn how to use English correctly.

  • Sirge

    I am an English teacher in Brazil and the book we use at the school is British. Having read most topics about “different from/to”, I would like to contribute with this fact:

    A lesson about collocations shows “different from”, plus consolidation exercises. Then, two lessons ahead, there is a listening exercise in which the speaker says: “I’m very different to my brother…”

    It may be a tiny detail, but I reckon that compromised scaffolding for that matter.

    I really like Sheila’s answer. That is exactly what I had in mind, but was not able to put into words.

  • Lynn

    According to Oxford English Dictionaries, all 3 uses are acceptable with no real justification for claiming otherwise. It goes on to say there is little difference in sense between the three expressions, and all of them are used by respected writers.
    If it’s good enough for OED, it’s good enough for me. Sorry if that’s different to your opinion, heheh… 😉

  • Warwick

    Brian,

    in your discussion of “different from and different to” you gave a splendid account of the way that words should be used in a way that reflects their meanings.

    Not all changes in usage are good; some introduce new and colourful meanings that extend the range of expressive and powerful words available, while some changes simply reflect the misunderstandings of illiterate celebreties.

    Well done, thank you.

  • MonFrereFelix

    Drop the over-analysis! “Different than” is a howler, as abysmal as “definately”, “he had did”, “I dove” instead of “I dived”, and more and worse, all results of the over-indulgent, laissez-faire teaching of English prevalent in the USA. The sick joke is that we in the UK see all this rubbish making its way, not “it’s way”, into UK usage of English thanks to the absolute deluge of terrible language and rank bad language “published” all over the web.

    People seem to believe that if it’s on the web it must be true. Innit?

  • Crowswing

    As a survivor of American public schools and presently substitute teaching in public schools, I agree wholeheartedly with the “laissez-faire teaching of English prevalent in the USA.” Absolutely! I see ‘it’s way’ present in so much media it makes me scream. My cringe-trigger: using ‘snuck’ as the past of sneak. Sneak, snack, snuck. That is up there with bring, brang, brung. The dumbing down marches on.

  • Diane

    How can ‘different than’ make any sense? The word ‘than’ denotes a comparison of measurable degrees e.g. ‘better than…’, ‘worse than…’, nicer than…’ or ‘calmer than..’. But difference cannot intrinsically be comparable. Something is either different or its not.
    Additionally, it is reasonable to assume that anyone who believes it is right to say ‘different to’ must equally (and logically) believe its right to say ‘similar from’.

    Logically speaking, anything different is ‘separate and apart from’ — and can never be ‘separate and apart to’ or worse, ‘separate and apart than’. Grammar is never British or American, its always just sensible.

  • Diane

    And yes, all my ‘its’ are wrongly missing an apostrophe (yikes!) and after all that preaching!lol.

  • Brian

    Thank you, Warwick. And Bravo Diane: your last point is the final nail in the coffin of ‘different to’.

  • Debie

    I was always given to believe at school that one would end up fried in hell for (a) splitting an infinitive or (b) using different to or different than (perish the thought). Not to mention that favourite phrase ‘he’s older than me” or “you and me went yesterday”. Whilst English must evolve to embrace new words and slang, do we really need to lose the grammer as well? Before you rewrite the rules of grammer, how about updating the spelling instead of hanging on to it for old time’s sake?

  • Brian

    A postscript on the different to/from debate. Attach, connect, conjoin: detach, disconnect, separate. We might connect things to each other, but we’d disconnect them from each other. We attach to, and detach from. We conjoin one thing to another, or separate it from the other. Or so I thought. In one and the same day last week I heard two people on Radio 4 independently say ‘separate to’ (one thing was ‘separate to’ something else). Is it not obvious that if two things are put apart (i.e. separated) from each other, they are then apart from each other, or separate from each other? If two lovers part, they separate. They can hardly separate to each other. So when they have separated, they are separate from each other. Have the ‘different to’ brigade by now hijacked the word ‘to’ so that it means ‘from’?

  • Ray Tapley

    The sentence, “We’re all different, but you’re more different than I am,” doesn’t mean it’s possible for “different than” ever to be correct. The phrase “from the norm” is understood and omited immediately after the word “different,” so it’s still “different from.”

  • Al Campbell

    Three simple grammatical rules that I grew up with were, “compared with”, “similar to” and “different from”. Never mix them up!

  • Aziza Cloud

    The OED is not to be trusted as a reference source for American usage; I have found that their definitions and advice in that area is often dead wrong. I think that they must be making up things without any basis in traditional or modern usage.
    For example, their blog states that “different than” is acceptable in American usage, and their definition states that it is prevalent in North America, though this is clearly untrue. Perhaps this is why they don’t permit comments on their definitions website, and they give only a short time for comments on their blog. This prevents real grammarians from pointing out their errors.
    I would trust Oxford to have more definitions than others might offer, because they are older. And I view them as a suitable reference for British usage.
    Would any native speakers of received pronunciation weigh in on this?

  • Tony Proctor

    I disagree Aziza Cloud. The reason I found this thread was that I wanted to know why my American colleagues were using different-than (which I find hard on the ear).

    I agree with others that sticking with similar-to, different-from, compared-with, and same-as is the right move.

  • Jeanne

    I found this site when looking for an answer regarding “different to” … a phrase heard on a current denture advertisement on the television. I cringed each time I heard it but had no idea why. After finding this thread, I learned that I have used the incorrect phrase “different than” for most of my life. If an early teacher taught me the correct usage, it has long since been misplaced in my aging brain. Thank you, all, for the opportunity to improve. Now, please do not let me know how many grammatical errors I have made in this short paragraph. One life lesson a day is about all I can handle.

  • Lee

    I WAS attracted to this discussion by the TV commercial that declares “Dentures are very different to real teeth”. It just sounds wrong (aurally). Being from the northeast U.S. , I suppose “than” would have sounded okay.

    I don’t agree, however, that we should be concerned with how the recipilent understands the statement, but rather how the speaker internal the statement to be understood. I realize that intention can’t be measured, but we already seem to use them to distinguish between murder and homicide.

  • Lance Foster

    I am 54. As I was growing up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, I only heard Americans, in person or on TV, use either “different from” or “different than.” I never started hearing “different to” except within the last few years.

  • Yorick Phoenix

    I tend to use ‘from’ and ‘to’ depending on the context. eg:

    “That’s not any different to doing it the way I suggested” and “That’s completely different from the way I suggested”. It all depends on the level of difference.

  • venqax

    I have to agree with the above that “different to” is– if OK in British– ONLY OK in British. In SAE it’s not only unacceptable but downright odd-sounding. Really, like something you would hear from an ESL speaker, not a native speaker, because it makes no logical sense.

    Different than is really substandard too, for all the well-articulated reasons. Different from is what makes sense, given the definition of different. However, I would have to allow that in some cases, different followed by a than, but not directly, is preferable for clarity and economy. E.g. from GrammarBlog:

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

    Rewriting it with different from could result in a clumsy clunker like
    “It is no different for men from the way it is for women.”

    Of course you could fundamentally rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem, but that’s not really the point.

Leave a comment: