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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
    Commented Aug 12, 2010 at 21:24
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    Regarding the edit: the rules of English grammar have never been beholden to logic…
    – nohat
    Commented Aug 13, 2010 at 17:22
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    @nohat: But we can change them so that they are! Be optimistic! ;-) Commented Aug 14, 2010 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"? Commented Jan 14, 2011 at 21:58
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    Even as a native English speaker, I was going to ask this very question until my search showed that it had already been asked and answered.
    – ncoghlan
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 13:17

8 Answers 8

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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:

[Corpus] "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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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
DIFFERENT FROM per million - 22.61 22.07 28.33 20.88 53.46
DIFFERENT THAN raw count 3453 1726 367 358 624 378
DIFFERENT THAN 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. Commented Sep 8, 2010 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
    Commented Sep 8, 2010 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. Commented Sep 9, 2010 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. Commented Sep 9, 2010 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
    Commented Sep 9, 2010 at 5:53
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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... Commented Aug 14, 2010 at 10:40
  • Totally agree, but you can say "differs more than" which may add to the confusion
    – serg10
    Commented Jan 26, 2011 at 11:12
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"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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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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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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    Many here in the US consider different than to be a solecism. They're wrong, of course; it's just a variant, derived from the comparative than, which has no other uses in English (where it's frequently confused with then). Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 18:44
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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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