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Real Grammar Quiz, Question 7: should I say “different from” or different to”?

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Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan DictionaryReal Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In the coming months, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.

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In the seventh question in our Real Grammar quiz, we asked which of these sentences is correct:

These results are completely different from the ones we got last week.
These results are completely different to the ones we got last week.

This question concerns the preposition we use after the adjective different. Corpus data shows that different is typically followed by one of three prepositions: from and to (as in our question), and also than. The first (from) occurs in all kinds of text; to is more typical of British English, and rarely found in American texts; and with than, the situation is reversed (British speakers hardly ever use it).

So which is right – or are they all right? Prescriptivists are united in their condemnation of two of these options: for them, only from is acceptable, and using to or than is simply wrong. Our colleague Stan Carey has discussed this question in detail on his own blog, where he reels off a long list of “experts” all voicing their disapproval of than or to. One site dispensing grammar advice includes this howler in its list of “The 10 Dumbest Grammar Mistakes”, saying:

This one is easy. Use “different from” and don’t use “different than.” Period.

And for Nevile Gwynne, “To give the wrong preposition is illiterate, as ‘different to something’ is wrong and ‘different from something’ is correct”. It is rare to find this level of unanimity in questions of grammar – but are the prescriptivists right to condemn the use of than or to?

This question of choosing the “right” preposition came up in an earlier Real Grammar post, when we discussed the case of bored. But that was a different issue. There, the evidence pointed to a change in usage over time, with “bored of” being favoured by younger speakers and thus gradually replacing the more traditional “bored with”. That process is still a long way from being complete, but the likelihood is that 20 years from now “bored of” will have become the norm. But in the case of different, all three prepositions (from, to, than) have been in common use for over 300 years. So it’s not a case of changing norms, but of several possibilities co-existing.

The evidence reveals quite a complex picture. Different than is rare in British English, but it was once common: the OED lists numerous well-known British writers from the 18th and 19th centuries who use this combination, including Defoe, Coleridge, and Thackeray. In contemporary American English, different than is fairly frequent (perhaps more in spoken than written texts), and it accounts for around one-quarter of cases where different takes a preposition. In contrast, different to is hardly ever used by American speakers, but is common in British English. In the British National Corpus, a search for different followed by a preposition (in a window of four words to the right of the adjective) throws up 4733 cases of from and 2907 of to – not such a large disparity.

The traditional argument for different from rests on an appeal to logic: since we say differ from when using the related verb, then surely we must also say different from. But language isn’t always logical, and there are plenty of cases where related words take different prepositions in different word classes. We might say I went to a talk on Russian politics, but not The speaker talked on Russian politics (talked about would be the norm here). We say “a discussion about”, so logically you might expect the related verb discuss to be followed by about, too. But it isn’t (though learners of English sometimes make this mistake): discuss is not followed by any preposition.

In his review of the various objections to different to and different than, Stan Carey concludes

These judgements, whether rude or neutral, newly acquired or long indulged, are pet peeves. They have nothing to do with grammatical correctness.

The evidence shows that all three prepositions are common (with different preferences according to region), but it is fair to say that different from has always been the most frequent combination, and it is the only one that no-one ever objects to. So although none of these prepositions is wrong, from is always a safe choice.

To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the eighth video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

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Michael Rundell

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