Which is correct – different from or different than?

The choice between using different from versus different than is another one of those English language myths. Prescriptivists argue that different from is the only correct form that educated people would choose. Indeed, some discussion boards on this usage point reveal that some purists feel so strongly they cite the decline or dumbing down of the language, or at best the use of different than is colloquial, but not correct in formal writing. For instance, two blogs on this topic showed quite a bit of activity in the responses: grammarbook.com had 139 posts over some 11 years; dailywritingtips.com had 65 posts in about 4 years.

This debate also brings up differences between American and British varieties of English. Though different from is the most frequently used constructions in both varieties, Americans tend to use different than as alternate, while most British prefer to use different to.

All three constructions have a long history of usage despite the fact that some have considered different from the only legitimate structure over a period spanning 240 years (Ebner 146). The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage says that both different from and different than have flourished in America. New Fowler’s further asserts that the prescriptivist rule for different from is “not supported in the face of past and present evidence or logic” (212). Indeed, different than and different to have been common and have appeared in the books by great writers and by “fastidious publishers” (grammarist.com).   

Linguists and grammarians trace the first record of someone complaining about different than to Robert Baker and his 1770 Reflections on the English Language, though his qualifications to make such pronouncements were questionable (merriam-webster.com, Ebner). It was the linguistic purists of the nineteenth century, however, who concretized it as an absolute rule.

Baker as well as the linguistic purists argued that the verb differ takes the preposition from, which makes the construction different from the only acceptable one. They felt it only logical to extend the rule to constructions using the adjective different; hence, different from is the proper form.

The British Cambridge dictionary states that in using the adjective different (meaning “not the same”), it is for comparing two or more items. This source acknowledges the different usages: different from for formal occasions, such as writing; different to and different than (American usage) in speaking:

Adam is so different from/to (/than) his brother.

This house is very different from/to (/than) your last one. (dictionary.cambridge.org)

However, though the word different is an adjective, it is not a comparative adjective. Comparative adjectives compare one noun (or pronoun) to another; superlative adjectives compare 3 or more nouns (or pronouns): big, bigger, biggest. The word than typically follows a comparative adjective; for example, as used in this sentence from grammar.com: K Street is closer than M Street.

It is because different is not a comparative adjective that some usage experts, such as Bryan A. Garner author of The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style (101), prefer the construction different from:

His car is different from mine.

These shirts are different from the ones I bought last year.

In the above examples, the comparison is noun (shirts) to noun (ones) or noun (car) to pronoun (mine).  (grammar.com)

While the different from construction works in sentences like those above, commentators note that insisting it in all writing can make the prose wordy and awkward. Thus different than is useful in creating concise and elegant sentences. Consider the examples below that are adapted from two resources:

a. I was a very different man in 1935 from what I was in 1916.

b. I was a very different man in 1935 than I was in 1916.

c. I was a very different man in 1935 than in 1916. (adapted from Ebner 147)

a. My birthday this year was different from what it was last year.

b. My birthday this year was different than it was last year.

c. My birthday this year was different than last year. (adapted from grammar.com)

Because different from requires a noun (or pronoun) as an object of the preposition from, what is required to complete the expression. On the other hand, different than may be followed by a clause. In this case, the word than serves as a conjunction (grammar.com). And in the practice of reduction or ellipsis seen in both examples labeled c, the repeated words can be left out (elided), making the sentence even more concise and elegant. (Ellipsis is discussed in a previous post.)

Whatever your personal or professional preference for any of the constructions – different from or  different than or different to – the grammarist.com asserts that “no English speaker has trouble understanding them.” In fact, this source goes on to cite statistics of their use and occurrence: “different than 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.”

As with any language choice in your writing, the decision about which construction you use will depend on your personal preference or your professional style guide or your editor’s or audience’s tolerance for the forms – different from,  different than, different to. Your best guide will be your comfort with your choice and how that choice contributes to your goals and prose style as a writer.

(Content drawn and adapted from various sources, including grammarbook.com, dailywritingtips.com, Carmen Ebner, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, grammarist.com, merriam-webster.com, dictionary.cambridge.org, grammar.com, The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style.)

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