The Negative Canon: Different Ways of Being Different

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Others have trodden this path before me, and I need do little more than refer readers to Stan Carey’s comprehensive post on different from, different than and different to, and to Mark Liberman’s additional analysis of the corpus evidence, and his examination of the verb differ to, on Language Log.

The use of different than seems to be a problem for many, as Stan has found:

Browsing the internet for opinion on the matter, we meet a mass of peremptory protest, which I must now counter-protest. ‘Different than’ is not grammatically incorrect, nor can it be dismissed as a common grammar error or an eyebrow-raising gaffe, let alone one of the 10 dumbest grammar mistakes. It is neither a nasty and glaring error nor a flagrant grammar mistake that makes you look stupid or dumb. You may call ‘different thanabominable, but this is a matter of taste. You may call it ignorant, but you would be wrong, and unaware of the unfortunate irony.

As Stan shows, the objections do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny.

‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ concludes that:

Overall the corpus data confirms that grammatical issues are more important than regional differences in deciding what to collocate ‘different’ with . . . ‘Different from’ has no exclusive claim on expressions of comparison. Writers and speakers everywhere use ‘different than’ as well, depending somewhat on the grammatical context.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) neatly summarises the truth of the situation:

These three phrases can be very simply explained: ‘different from’ is the most common and is standard in both British and American English; ‘different than’ is standard in American and British usage, especially when a clause follows ‘than’, but is more frequent in American; ‘different to’ is standard in British usage but rare in American usage.

In the same article, the MWDEU reports this comment from the New York ‘Sun’, quoted with approval by H L Mencken, referring to a debate on the topic in 1922:

The excellent tribe of grammarians, the precisians and all others who strive to be correct and correctors have as much power to prohibit a single word or phrase as a grey squirrel has to put out Orion with a flicker of its tail.

That is a fitting comment on the Negative Canon as a whole.


Filed under The Negative Canon

6 responses to “The Negative Canon: Different Ways of Being Different

  1. I’ve also written about this (especially ‘different to’) with some more statistics and several examples from British newspapers. It seems that David Cameron, for example, is quite fond of ‘different to’, as apparently am I.


  2. Gosh, surely all the “Omit Needless Words” crowd loves “different than” as it allows them to throw away a word every time!


  3. ‘Different than’ is wrong. That’s it. I’m a prescriptivist and whilst not proud, utterly unable to help myself.


    • Different from is the most common and most accepted construction, both in British and North American English. Different than, although often thought of as being used chiefly in North America, has a long history of use in British English.

      (Oxford English Dictionary)


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