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Different to

Q From Allan Paris; similar questions came from Martin Murray and David L Smith: In issue 501 of World Wide Words, you say ‘the Sun was very different to the others’. In the United States, different usually takes from, not to. Is there a difference in usage between the US and the UK? Would you please give me guidelines how to select the appropriate preposition after different?

A Yes, the UK is often different to the USA in this respect. That is the quick answer, but a rather longer one is needed to cover the topic in anything like completeness.

An astonishing amount of print has been devoted to these forms in various style guides and grammars in the past three centuries, with much argument devoted to supporting the from form through logical parallels with other formations. Some writers have argued that as differ must be followed by from, so should different; others have held that as both words begin with the Latin prefix dis-, meaning apart, and apart requires from, “different” must have it too. Attitudes have softened in the past century; authorities now agree that to and even the maligned than have their place.

The problem for conservative arbiters is that all three forms have been used for hundreds of years. Shakespeare is the first writer known to have used different from — before his time unto and to were usual.

Considering how much it has been denigrated, the than form has also been surprisingly common: the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary more than a century ago gave a long list of good writers who have used it, including Addison, Steele, Richardson, Defoe, Fanny Burney, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey, Goldsmith, Thackeray, and Carlyle. Eighteenth-century grammarians held that than was always a conjunction and so could not be used as a preposition in a similar way to from and to; that view prevailed, though the opposing opinion was argued forcefully even at the time and is now accepted by all grammarians. Than is still deprecated by many stylists; however, its use with different has long been common in the USA, though almost unknown in the UK. It can be the only good choice when different is followed by a clause (“She had one day hoped for a different lot than to be wedded to a little gentleman who rapped his teeth” — Thackeray, 1848).

The usual advice these days is that from is irreproachable. To is unobjectionable in British English but may need thought if it is to appear in the US. Than is colloquially acceptable — in the USA only — but can be used in more formal prose anywhere if a difficult paraphrase would otherwise result.

Page created 23 Sep. 2006

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Last modified: 23 September 2006.