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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
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.
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.
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
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.)
followed by a clause also sounds crisper than if we clung to our
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
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
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
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
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
3) This season’s concerts in the park (differ from / differ than)
4) The play the coach called was (different from / different than) the one
the quarterback wanted to run.
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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
3) This season’s concerts in the park differ from
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.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.