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Diving Back Into Different From and Different Than

It’s déjà vu for linguistic purists and caretakers of American English: We’re reading an article, having a chat, listening to the radio, or watching TV, and we receive the expression that something is different than something else.

We close our eyes, lower our chin, softly sigh, and shake our head.

No matter what we do, we just can’t make it stop.

We touched on this topic in 2007 and then again in 2015. In those entries—one short, one more in depth—we reinforced that different from is the standard phrase and that careful scholars and writers often avoid different than. William Shakespeare himself chose different from in The Comedy of Errors: "This week he hath been heavy, sour, sad / And much different from the man he was ..."

We also identified that both different from and different than have been circulating for centuries, often interchangeably, even among reputable writers. In addition, we pointed out that the common aversion to different than may be more magnified than needed.

We’re revisiting the subject because the line between different from and different than only gets thinner. We could even argue that different than is overtaking its counterpart, gradually in writing and rapidly in speech. The mainstream has instituted this grammatical mutation—it’s here to stay.

Today, we maintain that in most cases different from remains the preferred usage for astute writers and grammarians. At the same time, we acknowledge that proper English retains room for different than when used with savvy awareness.

Conceding to both phrases as lasting, we follow up to offer you, our careful-writer community, additional insight in helping us continue to apply them with polish and grace.

Different from is a separating phrase followed by a noun or pronoun.

Alone, the adjective different is not comparative; it differentiates one thing (noun or pronoun) from another.

My guitar is different from your ukulele.

I just noticed the blouse I bought last week is different from yours. I had thought they were similar.

Different than is a comparative phrase usually followed by a clause.

The logic here is than typically follows a comparative adjective such as stronger, shorter, or simpler or a comparative phrase such as more colorful or more legible.

John is stronger than Thomas.

Her handwriting is more legible than his.

The same reasoning applies to when we wish to use different than. The distinction is we will most often follow different than with a clause instead of a noun or a pronoun. Than thus serves a sentence as a conjunction that sets up the clause.

The cuisine was different than he thought it would be. (We can interpret this sentence as being more comparative than separating; different than further lets us be vague if we wish or need to be: perhaps the cuisine was better than he thought it would be, or maybe it wasn’t.)

Her mood is different than it was yesterday. (Again, another suggestive comparison with room to be vague if it’s needed: maybe her mood is better, or maybe it’s worse. The writer might have a reason to keep it open ended.)

Different than followed by a clause also sounds crisper than if we clung to our purist’s alternative:

The cuisine was different from what he thought it would be. (Because different from separates instead of compares, this statement could also imply the food itself was different, e.g., fish instead of meat, as opposed to general cuisine prepared by college interns instead of professional chefs, which could indicate a comparison.)

Her mood is different from what it was yesterday. (Beyond adding a word, the phrase makes the statement more stilted.)

If our inner purist demands we stand by different from—i.e., we insist on (correctly) conveying separation—we would simply replace the clause with a noun or a pronoun:

The cuisine was different from his idea of it.

Her mood is different from yesterday’s. (This is also perhaps more-concise writing.)

On a related note, the verb differ always pairs with from. The adverb differently can take either from or than depending on the writer’s aim for concision in expressing comparison or separation:

You do that differently than I do (as opposed to You do that differently from how I do it).

In the end, this topic is a matter of extra-fine nuance often noticed only by alert and knowledgeable readers. Many people will not distinguish the phrases but rather use them interchangeably or prefer different than in everyday communication.

Let that not deter us, however: as grammarians and careful writers, we can still maneuver the space that will always be a push and pull between a phrasal yin-yang.

Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your comments or questions regarding today's (or any past) article through GrammarBook.com’s Grammar Blog

Pop Quiz

Based on our current discussion, choose the phrase that best suits the context. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1) The dresser in Julia’s room is (different from / different than) the one in Cristina’s.

2) Jason solved that puzzle (differently from how / differently than) Jacob did it.

3) This season’s concerts in the park (differ from / differ than) last season’s.

4) The play the coach called was (different from / different than) the one the quarterback wanted to run.

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Question: What is the difference between a cat and a comma?

Answer: One has claws at the end of its paws, the other is a pause at the end of its clause.

Pop Quiz Answers

1) The dresser in Julia’s room is different from the one in Cristina’s.
The statement is more separating than comparative. Another sign pointing toward different from is the noun—“the one”—(as opposed to a clause) that follows the phrase.

2) Jason solved that puzzle differently from how / differently than Jacob did it.
If the observer is expressing that Jason’s solution is better than Jacob’s (faster, more thorough, etc.), then differently than is correct. However, if expressing only that the solutions were different (i.e., separating them), then differently from how is preferred. Note here also the use of a clause—“Jacob did it”—instead of a noun or pronoun after the phrase; this may often lean toward differently than.

3) This season’s concerts in the park differ from last season’s.
Differ than is never correct.

4) The play the coach called was different from the one the quarterback wanted to run.
Since we can’t know what the outcome was of the play the quarterback wanted to run, we can only say the plays were different and not that one was better than the other—i.e., the statement is more separating than comparative. Therefore, different from is preferred. Also note the use of a noun (“the one”) instead of a clause after the phrase.

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