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A Word, Please:

Differences between ‘that,’ ‘from’

May 19, 2010|By June Casagrande

Dan in Burbank recently came across an article in which a speaker was quoted as saying that a mother is of “the opposite sex than” her son. The speaker gets an A in anatomy, but Dan wouldn’t grade the speaker as well on his English.

“I’ve been grinding my teeth at the increasing use of ‘different than,’” Dan wrote. “I understand ‘than’ to indicate hierarchy — taller than, dumber than, less grammatically correct than — while ‘different’ sets up an ‘apples and oranges’ comparison on the same plane, and so comes out ‘different from.’ And I don’t even want to begin to understand the thought process involved in ‘opposite?.?.?.?than.’”

“Than” is one of those words we use every day without thinking about it. Then, one day, someone calls it into question and we realize it’s not so simple.


“‘Different than’ is often considered inferior to ‘different from,’” writes Bryan Garner in “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” “The problem is that ‘than’ should follow a comparative adjective (e.g., larger than, sooner than, etc.), and ‘different’ is not comparative.”

“Comparative” here doesn’t mean any word used to make a comparison. It means something more specific. Remember learning in school about comparatives and superlatives? Comparatives either end in “er” or start with “more” — taller, faster, more intelligent — while superlatives end in “est” or start with “most — tallest, fastest, most intelligent. That’s what Garner means by comparatives.

So “taller than” makes sense, but “different than” does not. That’s why I advise people to choose “different from” over “different than.” But, of course, it’s not always so simple. Look at the sentence “Tom has a bigger house than we do.” Replace “than” with “from” and you get total nonsense: “Tom has a bigger house from we do.”

The several reference books I checked fail to offer a mechanical explanation of the difference. So I’ll take a stab at it. “From” is, first and foremost, a preposition. Prepositions take objects, which are most often nouns or pronouns. Take it from him. I come from Florida. You drove from the mall.

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