Viva La Difference

Comparatively speaking

Am I “different than” you? Or “different from ” you? And does it matter?

Different than is often considered inferior to different from,” Garner’s Modern American Usage says. We certainly don’t want to be inferior.

It’s because the word “different” implies a contrast, while the preposition “than” is used for making a comparison (Her piece of cake is bigger than his).

The preposition “from,” on the other hand, automatically sets up a comparison: “She is 14 miles from home,” for example, compares the difference between where she is and where home is.

Yes, contrasts can be comparisons, but most of the time when people are saying something is “different,” they are trying to make a contrast.

As we’ve seen so many times before, getting people to think logically about English is not the easiest task. And for many people—for more than 300 years—“different than” sounds just fine. Even Garner’s acknowledges so: “Still, it is indisputable that different than is sometimes idiomatic, and even useful, since different from often cannot be substituted for it—e.g.: “This designer’s fashions are typically quite different for men than for women.” So we can use an “inferior” phrase when necessary,

Garner’s goes on to say: “When from nicely fills the slot ofthan, however, that is the idiom to be preferred.” It lists “different than” in the place of “different from” at Stage 3 on the Language-Change Index.

The British pretty much stick to “different to.” More power to them.

The situation is different from the use of the adverbial phrase “differently than.” The Oxford English Dictionary says that usage “is not uncommon, esp. in the U.S., but continues to be regarded by many as incorrect.” Garner’s says “differently than” is common and fully acceptable—if it precedes an independent clause, as in “This auction is going to be run differently than we’ve done it before.” But if “differently than” has no independent clause after it, “from works well and is preferable,” Garner’s says. The preference would be to say “I’m going to run this differently from you.”

As long as we’re doing comparisons, what about the difference between “compared to” and “compared with”? There’s a more subtle nuance at work here.

The New York Times Manual of Usage compares the two: “Use compare to when the intent is to liken things: The book compared the quarterback’s role to the job of a company’s vice president for operations. When the intent is to compare and contrast, or just to contrast, use compare with: They compared Terry’s forecasting with Dana’s, and found Dana more accurate.”

Most people though, don’t recognize that difference. As Mignon Fogarty, “Grammar Girl,” says: “Because ‘compared to’ and ‘compared with’ constructions are so widely—almost zealously—botched, spare yourself. Use ‘liken to’ and ‘contrast with’ and you’ll save yourself about a hundred bucks a year in headache remedies.”

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,