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UK vs. American English - "different to/from/than"
September 5, 2004 11:17 PM   Subscribe

UK versus American English usage question: In a recent post, the one on Chinese singing, I noticed that English speakers from England seem to use 'to' where most Americans would use 'from' or 'than.'
Example: "So 'bang' with a rising tone is different to 'bang' with a falling tone is different to 'bang' with a rising then falling tone."
Why is this, and how did this difference in usage originate?
posted by geekhorde to Writing & Language (19 answers total)
 
'Different to' is British English, 'different from' is American English. 'Different than' is just wrong.
posted by reklaw at 12:47 AM on September 6, 2004


Ooh, I've inspired my very own AskMe question! Funnily enough, when typing it, I considered "different than" so I'd fit in more, but it is wrong, I agree, although American Heritage doesn't.

I'd defend "to" vs. "from" on the tenuous grounds that stream of thought flows from that which is being discussed to that with which it is being compared. But then you want it to flow back again, so I guess "from" is fine.
posted by cogat at 1:19 AM on September 6, 2004


No, reklaw. 'Similar TO, different FROM' is the traditional rule in British English. The principle behind the rule (as it was explained to me) is that 'differ to' is obviously wrong (you wouldn't say 'apples differ to pears') so 'different to' must also be wrong.

Fowler says that 'different to' and 'different from' are both grammatically acceptable, but that the common prejudice against 'different to' has led to 'different from' becoming the norm. He regards the whole thing as a mistaken superstition, but accepts that 'different from' has become the standard usage. (Fowler's Modern English Usage, revised edition, 1965.)

Nowadays, the rule has relaxed and 'different to' is widely used. However, I still use 'different from' because I know that some people prefer it -- and there have been several occasions when I have used 'different to' and been ticked off for my 'bad English'. ('Different FROM, different FROM! Where did you go to school, young man?')
posted by verstegan at 4:18 AM on September 6, 2004


"Different to" doesn't seem to make much sense to me. But then, I'm not British.
posted by rushmc at 9:53 AM on September 6, 2004


*sigh*

Different dialects have different usages, both within a country and between countries. The use of a given preposition (or any other linguistic fact) develops out of a whole mix of historical and social influences, with none of which does logic have anything to do. Whichever preposition you natively use with "different" (or any other word) is correct for your dialect. Fowler is fun to read but has no relevance when deciding the facts of English. And a statement like "'Different than' is just wrong" is an infallible sign that whoever wrote it confuses language with ethics or good manners and can safely be ignored.
posted by languagehat at 11:14 AM on September 6, 2004


Oh yes, how dare I say anything is wrong! We should live in a happy fun world where anyone can abuse the language however they like.

I don't care what you say, "different than" is a screw-up on the scale of "would of/could of/should of". It is incorrect and should not be used.
posted by reklaw at 1:01 PM on September 6, 2004


Fowler is fun to read but has no relevance when deciding the facts of English.

I think, languagehat, if you read my comment again, you will see that that is more or less what I am saying. I was appealing to Fowler not as dogma but as historical evidence, and I was careful to include the date of the revised edition (1965) to make it clear that it doesn't represent the current state of the language.

I'm not a prescriptivist, and it doesn't matter to me whether people say 'different from' or 'different to'. But if there is indeed a difference between British and American English on this point, then that is an interesting phenomenon, and I would like to know the reasons for it. Maybe American style manuals tend to be more conservative than British ones?
posted by verstegan at 1:18 PM on September 6, 2004


Why shouldn't "different than" be used? I like the way it puts the two things being compared on a level playing field, whereas "from" seems to suggest that the one of them is the standard by which the comparison is being made.
posted by bingo at 2:04 PM on September 6, 2004


verstegan is the only one here answering the initial question which is not which usage is "better" or "correct" but rather "how did this difference in usage originate?"
posted by vacapinta at 2:13 PM on September 6, 2004


Bingo, yep, I'd agree with that. "Cars are different than either pork chops or shower heads." Makes perfect sense to me.

Also, language is a oral phenomenon. I would argue that codifying language with 'rules' is a secondary phenomenon. You learn language first by hearing it. And the 'than' thing I've heard locally all my life. Whether it's correct or not, it's locally understood.

Verstegan, that's precisely my question. I'm not interested in what is 'correct.' Screw that. I want to know origins.

Thanks to everyone who has answered.
posted by geekhorde at 2:23 PM on September 6, 2004


reklaw: somebody should learn you about the variability of the english language. languagehat is right.

on why there is a difference: I think what has happened here is that both forms (to/from) were used, but in different counties one of each of these forms has taken precedence. It's possible that this has happened randomly, and it's also possible that the word used implies something about the character of the country. To my mind, "from" is a more assertive word (take from, give to), and more in line with the American mid-set. I'm wrong, of course, but this is how I intuitively see it.

I don't think there is a cut and dried answer.

To answer rushmc: You're right. For me (in the north of the UK) "Different from" sounds wrong to me, although it's understood when used.
posted by seanyboy at 4:41 PM on September 6, 2004


Whichever preposition you natively use with "different" (or any other word) is correct for your dialect.
This is where I part ways with the linguists. I have nothing like the level of skill that the 'Hatmeister possess but I do like languages and I like to see and hear them well used.
Furthermore, this is not a question of dialects, my father's native tongue might be said to be Guyanese which while English is unintelligible to most Americans, however, when communicating with people not from Guyana, he uses the standard dialect (and says 'different from') there's a difference between speaking your local dialect and just plain being wrong.
Here's an example, I'm sad that regional dialects of Korea are being overrun by the propagation of the Seoul variety through the media, I'm also sad that the standard dialect of Korean has absorbed so much English. There can be more than one standard, in fact there should be, but that doesn't mean that there's no way a language can be wrong. Everyone speaking the same way would be monotonous, everyone speaking their own way is chaos.

In summary, definitely 'different from'.
posted by Octaviuz at 4:53 PM on September 6, 2004


"Cars are different than either pork chops or shower heads."

The only way to correctly use "than" in the same sentence with "different" is something like this:

"Cars are more (or less) different from pork chops than they are from shower heads."

In this sentence the "than" actually goes with "more" so there's no problem, and there's a "from" to go with "different."

I like the way it puts the two things being compared on a level playing field, whereas "from" seems to suggest that the one of them is the standard by which the comparison is being made.

That's because that's what saying something is different inherently means. How could you judge something different unless you were judging it against something? If you want a level playing field, the phrase you want is "equally different from each other" or some other construction entirely.
posted by kindall at 11:06 PM on September 6, 2004


I agree that "different from" is most widely accepted as the more proper usage, but to me, something "differs from something else" sounds very natural, while "is different from" seems less so.

"Different than" makes sense in a way, because consider the ways in which things differ: they are usually "taller than", "greener than", "older than", "more complicated than", etc., which seems to sort of naturally lead to a "different than" construction.
posted by taz at 1:38 AM on September 7, 2004


Since being in Bermuda ( UK ), and coming from the States, the most confusing thing I have ever heard was the expression 'I am writing a test this Saturday' as a opposed to 'I am taking a test this Saturday'. If the student 'writes' the test, what does the professor do? Another interesting regional expression is the question 'Where are you to?', which means 'What is your location?'
posted by jasondigitized at 8:07 AM on September 7, 2004


I do like languages and I like to see and hear them well used.

Well-used by some arbitrary standard? How does I'm tall, aren't I? sound to you? It "should" be I'm tall, am I not? or I'm tall, amn't I?, but "am't" is difficult to say, so "aren't" has become standard -- it's still much less consistant, grammatically, than (say) "ain't", but tough. English is full of similar ignored inconsistncies, as is every other language. Proper usage is dictated by convetion only, and convention varies from area to area. Judging one local convetion Wrong and another Right is predicated (unconsciously, of course) more on class than anything else.
posted by Tlogmer at 8:40 AM on September 7, 2004


Judging one local convetion Wrong and another Right is predicated (unconsciously, of course) more on class than anything else.

Exactly. This is why you should use English according to the highest class's standards. The benefits of having upper-class writing and speech are not inconsiderable, and they are easy to attain regardless of where you start out.
posted by kindall at 10:28 AM on September 7, 2004


Well, yes. But that's different from saying the upper-class standards are somehow intrinsically correct.
posted by Tlogmer at 10:01 AM on September 8, 2004


A lot of the "upper class" standards are based on an antiquated (not that it ever made sense linguistically anyway) destire to be as much like the Romans as possible, e.g. the rule against splitting infinitives.

That's because that's what saying something is different inherently means. How could you judge something different unless you were judging it against something? If you want a level playing field, the phrase you want is "equally different from each other" or some other construction entirely.

No, you just use "different than." There are different ways of judging things against each other. You can just things against each other arbitrarily, i.e. you're not positing either item as the standard by which to judge the other, or you can imply that one is the standard and the other is what's being compared to it, or judged against it.
posted by bingo at 9:23 PM on September 8, 2004


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