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A Word, Please: Sometimes idiom makes all the difference

December 20, 2013|By June Casagrande

John in Albany, N.Y., had a question about something he heard in a TV commercial: “Dentures are different to real teeth.”

The preposition struck him as odd.

“I don't recall ever hearing this (different to) before,” John wrote. “Then last week I was reading a book (written in 2006 by an English author), in which he uses the same phrase. Is this correct? I always thought ‘different from’ was correct ... not ‘different to.’ I know things have changed since my schooling in the ’40s and ’50s, and some things we thought were wrong are now accepted (perhaps due to repeated incorrect usage), so maybe I missed something.”

In fact, John did miss something. Or, more precisely, his teachers back in the ’40s and ’50s missed something. It’s the same thing my teachers missed in the ’70s and ’80s and, most likely, teachers of today miss, too.

The thing we all missed wasn’t a lesson on what word should follow “different.” It was a lesson on how to know which preposition goes with any particular word.

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For example: Are you embarrassed by something? Or embarrassed of it? Do you dissociate from someone or dissociate with him? Do you direct your attention at the speaker or do you direct your attention to him? Do you have an affinity for someone or an affinity with him? Are you bored by someone? Bored with him? Bored of him?

Questions like these cause more than their share of confusion. And they raise a larger question — the question that, unfortunately, hasn’t come up in many classrooms since at least before John’s school days: How can you know? When you’re not sure which preposition pairs with any particular verb, adjective or noun, where can you turn for a clear, authoritative answer on all that’s right and wrong?

Nowhere, that’s where. The lesson that none of us seem to get is that, in English, some things just are. They don’t conform to rules of grammar. Expert syntactical analysis won’t help you. Some things we say a certain way simply because people before us said them that way.

We call this idiom, and questions like “different from” vs. “different to” fall into this category.

“The proper preposition is a matter of idiom,” wrote Theodore Bernstein in “The Careful Writer.”

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