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Vive La Difference: Comparatively Speaking

Am I "different than" you? Or "different from " you? And does it matter?

"Different than is often considered inferior to different from," Garner's Modern American Usage says. We certainly don't want to be inferior.

It's because the word "different" implies a contrast, while the preposition "than" is used for making a comparison (Her piece of cake is bigger than his).

The preposition "from," on the other hand, automatically sets up a comparison: "She is 14 miles from home," for example, compares the difference between where she is and where home is.

Yes, contrasts can be comparisons, but most of the time when people are saying something is "different," they are trying to make a contrast.

As we've seen so many times before, getting people to think logically about English is not the easiest task. And for many people — for more than 300 years — "different than" sounds just fine. Even Garner's acknowledges so: "Still, it is indisputable that different than is sometimes idiomatic, and even useful, since different from often cannot be substituted for it — e.g.: "This designer's fashions are typically quite different for men than for women." So we can use an "inferior" phrase when necessary,

Garner's goes on to say: "When from nicely fills the slot ofthan, however, that is the idiom to be preferred." It lists "different than" in the place of "different from" at Stage 3 on the Language-Change Index.

The British pretty much stick to "different to." More power to them.

The situation is different from the use of the adverbial phrase "differently than." The Oxford English Dictionary says that usage "is not uncommon, esp. in the U.S., but continues to be regarded by many as incorrect." Garner's says "differently than" is common and fully acceptable — if it precedes an independent clause, as in "This auction is going to be run differently than we've done it before." But if "differently than" has no independent clause after it, "from works well and is preferable," Garner's says. The preference would be to say "I'm going to run this differently from you."

As long as we're doing comparisons, what about the difference between "compared to" and "compared with"? There's a more subtle nuance at work here.

The New York Times Manual of Usage compares the two: "Use compare to when the intent is to liken things: The book compared the quarterback's role to the job of a company's vice president for operations. When the intent is to compare and contrast, or just to contrast, use compare with: They compared Terry's forecasting with Dana's, and found Dana more accurate."

Most people though, don't recognize that difference. As Mignon Fogarty, "Grammar Girl," says: "Because ‘compared to' and ‘compared with' constructions are so widely — almost zealously — botched, spare yourself. Use ‘liken to' and ‘contrast with' and you'll save yourself about a hundred bucks a year in headache remedies."

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 22nd 2012, 2:16 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I'm a Brit, and interested in language: I think "different to" is unusual in England - in fact I don't know anybody who says it. "Different than" is widespread in ordinary speech, though careful writers still use "different from" - as I do, in my old-fashioned way.

But for how long? "Different than" is completely understandable and completely unambiguous, and the contrast-comparison dichotomy is too subtle for the common reader. Language users don't care about grammar, only about meaning. To compare two things is to highlight a difference between them, so surely to say they are "different" is just a more generic way of saying "bigger", "smaller", "younger", "older" or whatever the difference is.

We don't have a non-specific "-er" word, so roll on "different than". It fills a gap, and that's what evolution does.
Tuesday May 22nd 2012, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
These are the subtlies of language that pique my interest and confuse my understanding.
A great article clearly delimiting the finest issues from the confusion of speech.
Tuesday May 22nd 2012, 11:05 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
This article is very helpful. I try not to be overly obsessive about correctness, but it's nice to have certain rules defended rather than tossed aside in the name of let's-not-be-too-picky-ness. Thank you.

Yes, it's true that most people don't notice the difference between the two phrases, and "different than" usually does communicate a speaker's meaning. But "different from" has the advantage of communicating meaning even better because it doesn't include the mild incorrectness that will be distracting to some listeners. "Different from" is different from "different than" in several ways; in my opinion, it flows better and is clearer, more elegant, less distracting, more correct, less annoying, and generally more pleasing than "different than."

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday May 23rd 2012, 9:32 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I support Ms. Merrill's suggestion for to use ‘liken to' and ‘contrast with' so that at least it will save some money in buying headache remedies.
Putting in another way- use of "Different Than" in a wrong spot will turn to a nasty a racial argument.
Thursday May 24th 2012, 6:51 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
I'm not entirely happy with the determination that one should use "differently from" when there is no following independent clause. In the example given, "I'm going to run this differently from you", the independent clause is understood, ie, "I'm going to run this differently (than) you (did)." Given that, I don't see why "from" should be preferred.

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