6

Somehow I got the impression that "different to" (almost entirely unknown in America) is a locution that originated in the 20th century, and that "different from" is far older. Then I found "different to" in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Some (most?) of those were written in the 19th century, and all were written by a native speaker of English who reached adulthood before 1880. "Different than" seems like a far more recent locution, but again I don't know its history. I dislike "different than", but I've noticed that its use makes possible some efficient expressions that might not be possible otherwise (right now I can't remember any).

  • Is "different to" in fact a far newer locution than "different from"? If so, did it originate in the 19th century?
  • Has "different from" become non-standard usage in some places where the vernacular language is English?
1

3 Answers 3

5

Per the OED1, different from is probably the earliest phrase; however, both to and than versions appear quite early.

b. With from, to, than, †with, †against, etc., in constructions specifying the two or more things which differ from each other.
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.

  • The earliest attestation of this usage is different fro, ?a1425, with different from attested as early as ?a1475 (▸?a1425).
  • In 1526 the OED finds different and vnlyke to, and in 1588 different unto.2
  • Different then (sic) makes an appearance in 1644, and the correctly-spelled different than in 1728.

Google Ngram also suggests that, while different from has always been far and away more popular, the other two options have a venerable history. Interestingly, different than appears to have overtaken different to relatively recently (at least in the American corpus).

Google Ngram comparing "different from", "different to", and "different than"

A search of the British corpus suggests that while different to is still more common than different than, the use of both these locutions may also have increased in the UK in recent decades.

Google Ngram comparing "different from", "different to", and "different than" in British corpus only

So overall,

  1. There is a basis for your intuition that both different to and different than have become more common in the twentieth or twenty-first century, but both have been around for much longer than that.
  2. Different from probably remains standard for all major dialects of English, though the other two options are perhaps becoming less rare/unacceptable.

1 "different, adj., n., and adv." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Sense A.2.b.
2 The OED's first attestation for pure different to is not until 1852, but I suspect this is just a matter of choice; it can be found in Google Books at least as early as 1698 (snippet view): "his discourse to him was much different to what he writt in his letter" (Records of the Madras Government).

4
  • What is the reason you say "different than is probably the earliest phrase"? The OED doesn't say that, as far as I can tell; "has a long history of use" doesn't mean it has a longer history of use than the other constructions. The earliest citations in the OED don't seem to use "than":
    – herisson
    Apr 5, 2017 at 20:24
  • ?a1425 [...] Vlcerez virulent ar not different [L. non differunt] fro corrosyuez, bot after more and lese. ?a1475 (▸?a1425) [...] Þer were iij sectes of the Iewes in the Iewery, differente from the commune life of other peple. 1526 [...] His lyght is moche different and vnlyke to the lyght of the holygoost. 1588 [...] If..they could write any other language that were different vnto theirs. a1616 Shakespeare Comedy of Errors (1623) v. i. 46 This weeke he hath beene..much different from the man he was.
    – herisson
    Apr 5, 2017 at 20:25
  • @sumelic because 3:30pm...have fixed it. Do you think I should include the full text of all the attestations? It seems a bit kludgy, but I can.
    – 1006a
    Apr 5, 2017 at 20:30
  • The preposition "than" is mostly used in comparators "John is bigger than George", "higher than the highest tree" etc. It qualifies comparative adjectives. Though "different" is an adjective, people who say "different than" are not using it in a comparative form. Where its comparative is employed, "than" seems quite correct. "John and Charles are more different than they were when they were young" - meaning more different to one another. Otherwise the collocation "different than" always seems incorrect to me, and I tend to avoid it. "Different to" seems to me quite the more literate form.
    – WS2
    Jul 31, 2021 at 15:35
3

A series of Early English Books Online searches turns up the following earliest occurrences of the forms "different fro," "different from," "different than," "different then," and "different to."

From Thus Endeth the Prologue of This Book Named. Cordʻyal. (1479):

O how sore shal our lorde venge hym then̄ vppon the dampned synners As it is saide in Ec[c]lesiastico in the vij chapitre. The flesshe of synners shal haue vengeance by fire. This fire of the gehenne of helle is different from the materiall fire principally in ◊ thinges. First in fyersnesse & egernesse fo[r] ye power of it in brenning is infenite. wherfor seith seint Sebastian̄. When̄ the angel of heuen rowned hym in the ere. he seyde that our sensible fire is no more like the fire of hell then the fire peynted vpon a wall is like our materiale fire. Secundly in enduring.

From a 1506 printing of Jacobus de Gruytrode, The Mirroure of Golde for the Synfull Soule:

Oure iniquities hath put deuision bitwene god & vs / And our synnes hath withdrawen his face frome vs / that is to say frome our vision. For there is noon in paradise so iuste nor so holy? if he cōmytted synne? but a noon he shulde fall in to he. and lese the loue of god / to the whiche purpose saithe saint Augustyne / he that cōmytteth faulte or synne agaynst his true and moste true frende? ought to be reputed greatly reprouable Nowe then it behoueth the to knowe and vnderstond that by a more stronge reason he that cōmyteth faulte or synne against the souerayn & debonayre all mighty god? ought well to be reputed and of al holden abhomynable. Four thely it is to knowe that by synne the synner is Iuged to the Iebet of hell / & for so moche as the lawe of god is not farre different fro the lawe of man? Therfore in lyke maner al the brekers of the lawe of man? whiche dothe trespace againste the kingis Royall magestie? be worthy to deth / and ought to be punysshed corporally.

From The Shepardes Kalender (1570[?]):

And thus the day hath xii. houres, and the nyght xii. also the whych be temporal houres, different to the houres of the clockes, the which be artificials. Shepardes sayd that Saturne and Mars be euyll planettes. Iupiter and Uenus good, Sol and Luna halfe good and halfe euyll. The parey toward a good planet is good and the party towarde the euyl planet is nought. Mercury conioyned with a good planette is good, and with an euyll planet he is nought and they vnderstande this as to [t]he inflicences good or euyll that bin of the sayde planetes there folowynge.

The houres of the planets ben different to them of clockes, for the houres of clockes ben egall at all tymes eche of .lx. minutes, but they of the planets whē the dayes and the nightes be egall that the sonne is in one of the equinocces they be egal, but as sone as the dayes lengtheneth or shortneth, so dothe the natural houres, by this it is conuenient alway for the day to haue .•ii tēporal houres, & the nyght also, and when the dayes be long, & the houres longe, and when the dayes ben short and the houres short, in lykewise is the night, and neuerthelesse an houre of the day, and an houre of the night together haue vi. score minutes, as many as two houres artyficialles, for that the one leueth the other taketh.

From a 1594 translation of Louis Leroy, Of the Interchangeable Course, or Variety of Things in the Whole World and the Concurrence of Armes and Learning, Thorough the First and Famousest Nations: From the Beginning of Ciuility, and Memory of Man, to This Present:

The other Hetrurian letters which are seen yet at this day in the ancient sepulchers, are altogether vnknowen: Others searching the same yet more deeply, and fetching it farther off, affime that they were first inuented by the Ethiopians, who deliuered them to the Egiptians; the Egiptians to the Assyrians; the Assyrians to the Phenicians; the Phenicians to the Pelagians; the Pelagians to the Latins; the Latins to the Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Almains, Englishmen, Scots, Noruegians, Suecians, Polacques, and Hungarians.

The Characters of the letters are no lesse different then the tongues; & can not serue any tongue but that wherunto they were ordayned; nor represent the entier, & natural pronunciation, no, not of their owne; which changeth not onely from towne to towne, but almost from village to village; for Greek could not be written in Latin letters, nor the Latin in Greek letters: and the Greeks and Latins do not alwaies pronounce as they write; but to make the sound of their words softer, do change the pronounciation of some letters, ta∣king thone for thother: whereof ther is a complaint made in Lucian to the iudgment of the vowels.

From a 1603 translation (by Philemon Holland) of Plutarch, The Philosophie, Commonlie Called, the Morals Written by the Learned Philosopher Plutarch of Chæronea:

To the Antigenidians likewise they might impute ignorance of the Dirionian Musicke, for the same cause, as also the minstrels & harpers, as ignorant of the maner of Timotheus his Musicke. For they have in maner all betaken themselves to patcheries and fallen to the Poëmes of Polydius. On the other side, if a man consider aright, and with experience make comparison betweene that which then was and that which now is, he shall finde that variety and diversity was in use and request even in those daies also. For the ancient Musicians used in their numbers and measure, their variety, much more diverse & different than now it is. So that we may boldly say that the varietie of thymes, the difference also and diversitie of strokes was then more variable. For men in these daies love skill and knowledge, but in former times they affected numbers and measures. So that it appeareth plainely that the ancients abstained from broken Musicke and song, not because they had no skill, but for that they had no will to approve thereof.


To summarize, the EEBO database yields the following early occurrences of the various forms that I searched for:

  • 1479 different from
  • 1507 different fro
  • 1570(?) different to
  • 1594 different then
  • 1603 different than

Evidently, all five forms have appeared in published works in English for at least 400 years.

Also of possible interest is the number of matches for each of the five forms in the EEBO database, which runs from 1475 through 1700:

  • different from: 6,434 matches
  • different fro: 78 matches
  • different to: 325 matches (many of them not functioning as a comparative phrase)
  • different then: 91 matches (some of them not involving then in the sense of "than")
  • different than: 60 matches

Clearly "different from" was the dominant form during this period, although the others did occasionally appear.

-5

The correct preposition to use is from.

The word different is derived from the verb to differ - as in "be apart from something in some degree."

You can't be apart to or than something. You can only be apart from something.

The other two are colloquialisms. "To" is kind of cute. "Than" is downright disgusting.

3

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.