To or Fro(m): Do you know whether you’re coming or going?

I’m sorry, I just can’t let this go.

“How is this different from that? “How is this different to that?”

Which is the correct way to say it?

I can’t remember ever hearing, until recently, anyone say “different to.” It just sounds wrong and I think it is wrong. I’ve been hearing and seeing it more and more lately. Is that what is being taught in schools these days, or is it a vernacular mutation that is going mainstream?

Surprisingly, a web search of “different to” quickly turned up some useful information on the matter.

Here is what Oxford Dictionaries site has to say about it:

 Different from, than, or to?

Is there any difference between the expressions different from, different than, and different to? Is one of the three ‘more correct’ than the others?

In practice, different from is by far the most common of the three, in both British and American English:

We want to demonstrate that this government is different from previous governments. (British English)

This part is totally different from anything else that he’s done. (American English)

Different than is mainly used in American English:

Teenagers certainly want to look different than their parents.

Different to is much more common in British English than American English:

In this respect the Royal Academy is no different to any other major museum.

Some people criticize different than as incorrect but there’s no real justification for this view. There’s little difference in sense between the three expressions, and all of them are used by respected writers.

But Alt-Usage provides some further information and some statistics on actual usage:

“Different from” is the construction that no one will object to.

“Different to” is fairly common informally in the U.K., but rare in the U.S.

“Different than” is sometimes used to avoid the cumbersome “different from that which”, etc. (e.g., “a very different Pamela than I used to leave all company and pleasure for” – Samuel Richardson).

 Some U.S. speakers use “different than” exclusively. Some people have insisted on “different from” on the grounds that “from” is required after “to differ”. But Fowler points out that there are many other adjectives that do not conform to the construction of their parent verbs (e.g., “accords with”, but “according to”; “derogates from”, but “derogatory to”).

The Collins Cobuild Bank of English shows choice of preposition after “different” to be distributed as follows:

                    “from” “to”   “than”
U.K. writing   87.6   10.8       1.5
U.K. speech     68.8   27.3       3.9
U.S. writing  92.7       0.3     7.0
U.S. speech     69.3     0.6     30.1

So it seems it is the Brits who are to blame.

C’mon you blokes, learn to speak proper English!

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2 responses to “To or Fro(m): Do you know whether you’re coming or going?

  1. Awfully interesting! — especially for me who is Russian and very sensitive to distortions of the Russian language which are heard everywhere, even (and shamefully often) in media. Much is being said in protection of our great wonderful language, but things are becoming worse and worse. The case you have chosen to ruminate upon is of a less dramatic type : it appeals to the delicate tuning fork of “language feeling” selecting among different norms. The problem is alluring. Thank you.

  2. Tom, very enlightening. Thank you for taking the time to research this. The reinforces what Hofstadter and others have commented that language is a phenomenon that never fits exactly with the models we invent for it. Usage if far more sensitive to situation than the models admit.

    I am frequently confronted with/by choices (just there) for alternative choices for “connection terms”. Occasionally I look up the Internet definition of a term I use frequently but really have never seen a dictionary definition. I am often quite surprised when my usage is a rare one. I wonder how much real difference in mutual comprehension this variation of usage makes?

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