Same difference

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.

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  • nigelgrantNigel Grant  On August 28, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Gwynne. So snotty, so dependent on some people’s fear of being thought illiterate. That last sentence has an implied or suppressed subject.

  • catteau  On August 28, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Oh my goodness, it’s this topic again! Stan Carey’s delightful blog on language ( included a post on the subject of prepositions to follow “different” – though his post was primarily about “different from” vs. “different than”, and scarcely mentioned the less-common “different to.” His original post was, I think, in 2011 or 2010, and people are STILL fighting about this issue in the comments! It’s a battle between those who recognize and revel in regional differences, and those who believe only their variant of the language is correct and fume at the barbarity of upstart colonists would would presume to let the Queen’s English evolve!

    As far as I can tell, “different from” is standard in the UK and was once standard in North America. “Different than” is pretty much standard in North America now. I’ve only ever heard “different to” used by Australians, but perhaps it is actually more widespread? It does sound odd to me (as a north American who was strictly raised to say “different from” and was corrected when I emulated the people around me and said “different than”).

    But of course they are all correct!

    • Tom Freeman  On August 28, 2014 at 3:49 pm

      Yes, I remember that post of Stan’s. On geography, “to” is quite common in the UK but not much in the US; “than” is more a US thing but it’s definitely catching on in the UK too. Other countries I don’t know about, but GloWbE could give a steer on that.

    • bratschegirl  On September 8, 2014 at 3:54 am

      “Different than” is becoming increasingly common in the US, particularly in conversation. “Different from” is what I was taught was correct, and I would say it remains the standard in formal writing. I’ve always associated “different to” with the UK, but a very random sampling of BBC newsreaders and the like indicates that “from” is appearing surprisingly (to me) often.

      • catteau  On September 8, 2014 at 12:27 pm

        “Different than” is definitely standard formal written English in the US. I almost never see “different from” in writing (except for my own), and definitely never “different to.”

  • Barrie  On August 28, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Reblogged this on Caxton.

  • DJ Weatherford (@realmagicdj)  On August 28, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    I used to teach in a university program where some of my international students used “different to” from time to time, but I assumed they were doing it by analogy to their native languages or had learned it with the predominantly British English they had brought with them to central Texas. But recently I’ve heard it on several commercials, and I wonder now whether we’re going to start seeing a sharp change in its direction.

    • catteau  On August 28, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      And do you use different from or different than, in central Texas?

  • Warsaw Will  On October 18, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    Hi. Having discovered by accident that I am a “different to” user, I’ve written a couple of blog posts about this usage which may be of interest. The first one looks at its treatment in usage guides and its use in the British media:

    The second one takes a historical look, via the clippings facility at Google Books, with examples going back to 1603, including Austen, Darwin, Dickens, the Brontés and George Elliot, as well as 18th and 19th century comments on its use from various grammarians and commentators, including Smollett and Robert Baker

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