Different from, Different to, Different than

By Maeve Maddox

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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.

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

  • 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.

  • Jeffrey W. Griffith

    The use of “different to” suddenly came into currency in America just about three or four years ago and grates upon the ear. I frankly do not care if they say it in the UK. After all, they say “aluminium” there, as well. But in America, we say “aluminum” and “different from” When I hear an American say “different to,” I cannot decide if they are being affected, as in referring to an elevator as a “lift,” or simply illiterate in American English usage. More to the point, the meaning of “different from” is clear, conveying a statement of comparison; whereas, “different to” is meaningless, nonsensical use of the preposition to, conveying no comparative concept at all. If language is to have meaning, then we must use the proper words that convey the meanings intrinsic to their use in the language. That the English may do otherwise should be of no consequence to an American. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I am wrong, a chorus of angels asserting that I am right cannot change that.” Eschew “different to!!!!!”

  • Dustin Ginsberg

    In the more general category of misused words, there are several I would like to spotlight. The easy one is something about 50% of people, even professionals get wrong, saying “hone in” instead of “home in”. I am always correcting them, but it’s sort of futile. There is no such phrase as “hone in”, it’s only that “hone” sounds similar to “home”, and it’s meaning, “to sharpen”, is somewhat similar to the meaning of “home in”, where “home” refers to the action of a homing device or homing pigeon. “Home in” is similar to similar to “zero in”.

    Another pet peeve is a usage mostly perpetuated by advertisers and medical writers; use the the verb “absorb” intransitively. Absorb” is only a transitive verb (unlike, for example, “assimilate” which can be either transitive or intransitive), but it is often used in phrases such as “Our brand of vitamin C absorbs twice as fast”, rather than “Our brand of vitamin C is absorbed twice as fast”. “Absorb” requires an object, even if the object is implied, as in Our paper towels absorb twice as fast as the competitors”; “absorb liquid” is implied. But vitamin C does not absorb anything, in the first instance.

    The third usage is so widespread people don’t even recognize the distinction, especially in UK. That is, use of the verb “substitute”, which is often used backward, as though it were interchangeable with “exchange” or “replace”. For example, it is common to hear something like, “I want to substitute mashed potatoes with fries”; the sentence should be, “I want to substitute fries for mashed potatoes.” “Substitute” refers to something or someone that takes the place of another, and is therefore directional. Alone among dictionaries I’ve consulted, The Oxford English Dictionary tries to say that the incorrect usage is acceptable, while admitting it can be imprecise, and then cites an analogy of this usage from sports that is actually incorrectly applied.

  • Luke

    I’m British, and I can see that ‘different from’ makes sense, but ‘different to’ sounds more natural. Of course, I would never say ‘differ to’, but would meaning be muddled if I did?

    If I go from the shop, I go away from the shop. If I receive a letter from a friend, I receive a letter sent from a friend. In both instances using to instead of from reverses the direction, granted the second example requires a little extra information. With different, there simply is no need to establish direction because it doesn’t alter the meaning.

    I can see that a preposition is needed, and I choose to use to. Maybe it’s just local usage, or maybe it’s because it makes no difference to meaning so we might as well use to as it’s a word we’re very used to using in many different constructions already. I think it will become the norm eventually wherever English is spoken. And I’m not going to apologise for my poor grammar.

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