In your recent column on Eskimo vocabulary [February 2], you surpass your usual standard for gratuitous rudeness. In declaring one of your correspondents' English composition skills to, well, blow, you cite the writer's use of the expression different than (as opposed to different from) as being incorrect. To the best of my knowledge, no reputable British or American authority on formal English usage of the past 50 years and more has lent support to this mistaken 18th-century view. As with so many misapprehensions about English grammar and usage, this one seems to have arisen as a result of grammarians' confusing English with Latin. Surely we all understand that arrogance is your stock-in-trade, but when going "over the top," as in this instance, you really should first be sure you have a clue what you're talking about.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Sound advice for all of us, chum. A sensible discussion of different from versus different than may be found in Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer, published in 1965. Bernstein favors the former usage in most instances. So does the usage panel in my 1976 American Heritage Dictionary. The argument has nothing to do with Latin. People say different than out of the mistaken belief that different is a comparative adjective and thus takes than, as with better than, faster than, etc. But it’s not a comparative (diff, differ, diffest?), it just looks like one. Different is used to draw a distinction and thus properly takes from, as do separate from, distinct from, apart from, etc. (One recognizes that we say in contrast to; one also concedes that another false comparative, other than, is firmly entrenched in the language. Never mind, this is English. One does the best one can.)
Some may say: Who cares what preposition we use? Prepositions have always been a little arbitrary. Bernstein would reply that it’s more than a matter of switching words; we’re talking about different parts of speech. A key element of his argument is that than is usually construed as a conjunction, with part of the dependent clause omitted. “We are better than they” is really an abbreviation of “we are better than they are” (which is why we properly say they rather than them.) But in most cases — l get to the exceptions in a moment — different doesn’t take a conjunction (“I am different than he is”?); it takes a plain old preposition, from. This argument probably had more force in 1965 than it does today, when most people don’t even know what a preposition is. But Bernstein’s point is still valid. Many people who know nothing of grammar will concede that better than them grates on the ear nonetheless.
Bernstein admits that there are instances in which different than is preferable. He cites some quotes originally dredged up by Bergen Evans: “How different things appear in Washington than in London.” “It has possessed me in a different way than ever before.” To use from in these sentences would require some lumbering construction like, “How different things appear in Washington from the way they appear in London.” Bernstein and Evans offer a rather vague rationale for why than is OK, but it boils down to this: In the sentences above, than functions as a conjunction, not a preposition. The first is a condensed version of “How different things appear in Washington than they do in London”; the expanded form of the second would conclude, “than it ever has before.”
So there’s our rule. When different is followed by a prepositional phrase, the preposition should be from. When it’s followed by a dependent clause introduced by a conjunction (even if much of the clause is elliptical), the conjunction should be than.
A few malcontents will have none of this, claiming that in the UK it’s considered perfectly proper to use different than in a prepositional construction. So? The British also drink warm beer, avoid dentists, and came up with 5,280 feet to the mile. In the end, logic will always fall before usage; you’re not going to find me holding out for “it is I” rather than “it’s me,” even though logic demands the former. But this is one of those on-the-bubble situations where logic has a fighting chance, so I say we give it a shot.
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.