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As someone who learned English later on in life, I was taught that different from is the correct grammar to use: this is different from that. However, it seems these days everyone uses different than instead. I know it's incorrect usage, but does the language evolve if the majority wins?

Edit: Some commented different than is American English and different from is British English, both are OK. IMO, this isn't like color versus colour, though.

Than is used after a comparative adjective, e.g. taller than, whiter than. The word different isn't a comparative adjective, unless used in more different than. Logically, it makes no sense to say different than.

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What makes you so certain that "different than" is incorrect usage? –  nohat Aug 12 '10 at 21:24
    
I personally use both "different from" and "different than", in slightly different contexts. I don't think it goes against the syntax checkers most English speakers have built in from when they are young. It is simply people being pedantic that would get annoyed by it. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 13 '10 at 4:31
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Regarding the edit: the rules of English grammar have never been beholden to logic… –  nohat Aug 13 '10 at 17:22
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@nohat: But we can change them so that they are! Be optimistic! ;-) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 14 '10 at 1:17
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"The word different isn't a comparative adjective, unless used in more different than. Logically, it makes no sense to say different than." —what about "other than"? –  Cerberus Jan 14 '11 at 21:58

8 Answers 8

up vote 69 down vote accepted

You left out the construction that makes the question more interesting: different to.

The quick answer is that "different from" is always correct and acceptable everywhere, but "different than" is common in US usage (as odd as it may seem for two things to be both different than the other), and "different to" is common in UK usage (as odd as it may seem to have both "different from" and "different to" mean the same thing).

Here's the useful alt.usage.english FAQ entry in its entirety:

"Different from" is the construction that no one will object to. "Different to" is fairly common informally in the U.K., but rare in the U.S. "Different than" is sometimes used to avoid the cumbersome "different from that which", etc. (e.g., "a very different Pamela than I used to leave all company and pleasure for" -- Samuel Richardson). Some U.S. speakers use "different than" exclusively. Some people have insisted on "different from" on the grounds that "from" is required after "to differ". But Fowler points out that there are many other adjectives that do not conform to the construction of their parent verbs (e.g., "accords with", but "according to"; "derogates from", but "derogatory to").

The Collins Cobuild Bank of English shows choice of preposition after "different" to be distributed as follows:

                "from"  "to"    "than"
                -----   ----    ------
U.K. writing    87.6    10.8     1.5
U.K. speech     68.8    27.3     3.9
U.S. writing    92.7     0.3     7.0
U.S. speech     69.3     0.6    30.1

So it's safest to avoid both "different to" and "different than", even though they have ≈30% popularity in UK and US speech respectively, and use "different from" exclusively. See also Michael Quinion's World Wide Words where he points out that many good writers have used the much-maligned now-grudgingly-accepted "than".

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+1 for actual usage stats –  serg10 Jan 26 '11 at 11:10

If you look in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), you will find that different than, despite objections to its being “illogical” and “incorrect”, is in fact a very common and therefore standard usage in American English.

                TOTAL  SPOKEN  FICTION  MAGAZINE  NEWSPAPER  ACADEMIC
 DIFFERENT FROM 
      raw count  12420   1970     1804      2469       1744      4433
    per million         22.61    22.07     28.33      20.88     53.46
 DIFFERENT THAN 
      raw count   3453   1726      367       358        624       378
    per million         19.81     4.49      4.11       7.47      4.56

Raw results page

From this we can see that, indeed, different from is more common than different than, but by a ratio of less than 4 to 1, meaning that different than enjoys substantial minority usage. Further dividing up the usage, we see that different than is almost as common as different from in spoken English (22.61 incidences per million words for different from versus 19.81 for different than), but much less common in written forms. When a usage is more common in spoken English, that is usually a sign that it is less formal.

For another perspective, let’s look at the historical development of different than using data from the Corpus of Historical American English:

COHA results page Graph showing incidences of 'different than' and 'different from' since 1890

Here we see that different than is a relatively new development in American English, only coming into any significant usage starting in the 1960s. It is probably this relative newness that makes usage commenters object to different than. But the rise of different than is probably inexorable, and the COCA data, which divides up incidences over the last 4 half-decades, shows that the ratio in favor of different from was 4.4 to 1 for 1990–1994, but had dropped to 2.9 to 1 by 2005–2010.

So, in conclusion, yes different from is more common than different than, and different than is less formal than different from, probably because it is a relatively recent development. However, different than occurs with significant frequency even in formal academic writing, so to write it off as simply “incorrect” is to ignore the facts. If current trends continue, different than and different from will be equally common within a few decades.

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"Very common and standard" is not mutually exclusive with "illogical"; English has a great deal of illogical stuff that's standard usage. :-) Things can be improved with conscious effort. Unless you're a professional linguist, language is not something "natural" that can only be studied; it's an artificial construction whose direction we can consciously try to influence (however feebly). Like "on accident", "begs the question" etc., this one is still something we can comment on, even if it's eventually going to be common. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 8 '10 at 6:37
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@ShreevatsaR: You’re welcome to play the Don Quixote role on this matter—although I will note that your answer is as descriptive as mine. I prefer to celebrate illogical idioms in the language and am not interested in a campaign to stamp this one out. I find different than to be perfectly natural and probably use it all the time. I’m not going to be policing myself into stopping, and certainly won’t be telling others they should either. But, by all means, you should feel free to tilt away. –  nohat Sep 8 '10 at 7:13
    
@nohat: Nice comment. :-) Indeed I'm just as descriptive, and I also upvoted this useful answer; I was just pointing out in reaction to your first and penultimate sentences that even standard phrases can be legitimately (if irrelevantly) criticized as "illogical" (hey, what about when "could care less" becomes standard?)... or even as "incorrect", since "correct"/"grammatical" just means "according to the rules of grammar", and "the" rules the person has in mind may simply not yet have caught up to account for usage. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 9 '10 at 5:39
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Aside: Of course I'm not anti-descriptivist, just anti-anti-prescriptivist: I admire people who care enough to tilt at windmills, and don't see why they get abuse. :P We all have non-standard usages we like and standard usages we don't, and the notion that (say) Strunk and White ought not to express their preferences and lay them down as rules, in a book clearly marked as a style guide and not a grammar textbook, is just as absurd as students taking a style guide too seriously. For Don Quixotes, S&W did succesfully decrease the incidence of some things they didn't like, for a while at least. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 9 '10 at 5:40
    
@Shreevatsa thank you for your detailed reply. I don’t think we have that much to disagree on then, and I appreciate your pointing out when my commentary becomes a bit too shrill. As an aside, I’ve always just interpreted “could care less” as sarcasm, even before I knew there was any controversy about it. –  nohat Sep 9 '10 at 5:53

Imagine modifications:

"to differ FROM" is ok

"to differ than" makes no sense.

Therefore, if you cannot differ than something, you also cannot be different than something. It's completely not like "greater than".

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@ShreevatsaR - yes, it is an adjective... silly me! Don't worry I deleted that comment. Freudian slip... –  Vincent McNabb Aug 14 '10 at 10:40
    
Totally agree, but you can say "differs more than" which may add to the confusion –  serg10 Jan 26 '11 at 11:12

"Different from" is used in both British and American English whereas 'different than" is primarily American English. Those of us who are used to the British model might be comfortable with "different from" but "different than" is an equally popular usage in American English. Please look at the Longman dictionary entry for 'different' here

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The majority always wins, and there's always a minority that sticks to traditional correctness, and eventually disappears. The very meanings of some words in the English language (as in others) have changed so dramatically in some cases that historical speakers would never be likely to guess. There are too many to begin to list, though perhaps someone can provide a few nice examples off the top of their head.

(Side note: indeed, "different from" is the correct usage... for now!)

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Different from is the construction most often used in the U.S. and Britain; different than (used almost exclusively in North America) is also used, especially in speech.

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I am an American living in Australia, and I'm not sure anymore what I pull from American English, and what I pull from Australian English, but I use "different from" unless I'm using more/less, as in "more different than".

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From Fowler's Modern English Usage:

Different. That different can only be followed by from & not by to is a superstition. Not only is to ‘found in writers of all ages’ (OED); the principle on which it is rejected (You do not say differ to; therefore you cannot say different to) involves a hasty & ill-defined generalization. Is it all derivatives, or derivative adjectives, or adjectives that were once participles, or actual participles, that must conform to the construction of their parent verbs? It is true of the last only; we cannot say differing to; but that leaves different out in the cold. If it is all derivatives, why do we say according, agreeable & pursuant, to instructions, when we have to say this accords with, agrees with, or pursues instructions? If derivative adjectives, why derogatory to, inconceivable to, in contrast with derogates from, not to be conceived by? If ex-participle adjectives, why do pleases, suffices, defies, me go each its own way and yield pleasant to, sufficient for, and defiant of, me? The fact is that the objections to different to, like those to averse to, sympathy for & compare to are mere pedantries. This does not imply that different from is wrong; on the contrary, it is ‘now usual’ (OED); but it is only so owing to the dead set made against different to by mistaken critics.

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