Oliver Kamm ponders an alleged rule of grammar:
NM Gwynne, the author of the bestselling but absurd Gwynne’s Grammar, says: “Sometimes [prepositions] are important simply because to give the wrong preposition is illiterate, as ‘different to something’ is wrong and ‘different from something’ is correct.”
Why is it illiterate to say different to? Gwynne does not say; nor is it true.
I can answer this. At least, I can report Gwynne’s answer, which he gave at a talk earlier this year.
He said that there’s a danger of ambiguity. If we allowed ‘different to’, then a sentence such as ‘He looks very different to me’ would have two possible meanings: his appearance is unlike mine; or his appearance has, in my opinion, changed.
This is silly, for two reasons.
First of all, because so many words have more than one use, there are lots of indisputably correct standard usages that can – in theory – lead to ambiguity. But context usually makes the intended meaning clear, and if it doesn’t then it’s no great effort to rephrase it.
For example, a sentence such as ‘His garden looks very different from mine’ might have two possible meanings: his garden’s appearance is unlike that of mine; or the appearance of his garden changes if you look at it from the perspective that mine offers.
Secondly, the question of ‘allowing’ this usage is laughable. Language pundits have embarrassingly little influence on general usage. We can recommend, but there really is no question of allowing or forbidding. Nobody is in charge of the language. Nobody ever has been.
The idea that ‘different to’ is wrong was first expressed by Robert Baker in 1770, but he was already too late. It is well- and long-established in British English:
- William Bonde (1526): His lyght is moche different and vnlyke to the lyght of the holygoost.
- Henry Fielding (1737) ‘Tis a quite different Thing within to what it is without.
- Thomas Paine (1811): The king, who, very different to the general class called by that name, is a man of good heart…
- WM Thackeray (1852): The party of prisoners lived…with comforts very different to those which were awarded to the poor wretches there.
True, it has always been less common than ‘different from’: Google Books puts ‘different from’ well ahead of ‘different to’, by about 14 to 1 at the end of the 20th century – but falling sharply. And uncommon doesn’t mean wrong.
More recently, in the UK part of the GloWbE corpus (recording language used on web pages in 2012), ‘different from’ is only modestly ahead of ‘different to’, by about 10,000 to 7,000. What’s more, of the first hundred of the entries for ‘different to’, not a single one uses it in the second way that Gwynne suggests. His fear of ambiguity seems overblown.
Still, some people don’t like it, and that’s worth remembering. Attitudes to usage – like usage itself – need not have a rational basis, but they’re facts all the same.
Despite its critics, though, ‘different to’ is irreversibly a part of the language. That ship has sailed, crossed the ocean, reached its destination, been dismantled, and had its parts used to build houses in which generations of people have lived happy and productive lives.
Update: catteau in the comments reminds me of a good post on this by Stan Carey.