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What’s the difference?

[Note: This post was updated on May 27, 2020.]

Q: I’ve always said “A is different from B,” but now I’m hearing television ads and reporters saying that “A is different to B.” (Currently, there is a denture ad that says, “Dentures are very different to real teeth.”) I cringe when I hear “different to,” but am I cringing with righteousness?

A: We’d say “different to” makes you cringe out of unfamiliarity, not righteousness. The usage has a long history, but it’s uncommon in American English despite your recent sightings or, rather, hearings.

In a post a few years ago, we pointed out that both “different from” and “different than” are legitimate constructions. But we didn’t say much about “different to,” except that it’s used in British English.

On one point, British and American speakers agree—“different from” is standard in all varieties of English. 

But the other two combinations—“different than” and “different to”—are controversial, depending on whom you ask and where you live. In very broad, general terms, Americans accept “different than” but not “different to,” while the reverse is true in Britain.  

Much has been written about all of this—probably more than it deserves.

The editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage say they have “thousands and thousands of words” in their files, by about 80 commentators, on the subject of “the propriety of different than or different to.”

Despite all the wordage, the M-W editors write, the various “different” phrases can be explained very simply:

● “different from”: This usage “is the most common and is standard in both British and American usage.”

● “different than”: This construction “is standard in American and British usage, especially when a clause follows than, but is more frequent in American.” (A clause contains both a subject and its verb.)

● “different to”: This phrase “is standard in British usage but rare in American.”

We should note here that not all authorities agree with M-W that “different than” is standard in Britain.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says “different than” is “hardly used at all in BrE [British English], but is well established in AmE.”

The authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, write: “American manuals accept than, especially with clausal complements, while British ones vary in their attitude to it: some defend it as permitting a simpler construction … but most do not allow it as standard in BrE.”

Another guide, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed.), by R. W. Burchfield, has this to say:

“The commonly expressed view that different should only be followed by from and never by to or than is not supportable in the face of past and present evidence or of logic.”

Despite that, Burchfield adds, “different to” is “rarer in AmE,” while “different than” is “widespread in AmE but does not form part of the regular language of Britain.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry for “different,” says it’s used today with “from,” “to,” and “than” (formerly with “with,” “against,” etc.) in “constructions specifying the two or more things which differ from each other.”

The OED goes on to say: “Different from is the most common and most accepted construction, both in British and North American English. Different than, although often thought of as being used chiefly in North America, has a long history of use in British English.”

Whether or not you regard “different than” as standard in Britain, it’s certainly standard in the US, especially before clauses.  For example, “different than it appeared” is much simpler than “different from the way it appeared” or “different from what it appeared.”

Now on to the question at hand, the use of “different to.”

This construction, the OED says, “is found in writers of all ages, and is frequent colloquially, but is by many considered incorrect.” [Note: The OED‘s third edition, updated in March 2016, no longer includes this notation and in fact does not comment specifically on the use of “different to.”]

As we’ve shown, it’s probable that most of the “many” who consider this incorrect are Americans, since “different to” isn’t considered incorrect in British English.

The British commentators Huddleston and Pullum give this example of the usage in the Cambridge Grammar: “This version is very different to the one we shall hear in the simulcast.”

From a historical perspective, there’s no doubt that “different to” has a respectable pedigree. Evidence in the OED shows that “different from” was first on the scene in the 15th century, followed  by “different to” and “different unto” in the 16th century, and “different than” in the 17th century.

For many years, all three forms lived peacefully together. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 18th century that objections began cropping up. Some grammarians of the day found reasons to quarrel with both “different than” and “different to.”

Henry Fowler, in the first edition of his Modern English Usage (1926), defended both of them. Nevertheless, they still raise the ire of pedants in one English-speaking country or another.

We’ll conclude by saying that neither “different than” nor “different to” is incorrect. All that can be said against them is that in some places they aren’t commonly heard. 

British speakers don’t routinely use “different than.” Some still occasionally object to “different to,” though it’s a standard usage in Britain.

Similarly, some Americans still occasionally object to “different than,” though it’s standard in the US. But Americans rarely use “different to.”

So any American who uses “different to” on home ground can expect to inspire a few cringes.

[We discussed the etymology of “different” on Dec. 20, 2021, in a post about how it differs from “disparate.”]

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