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A Word, Please: Acceptable or not, what's the difference?

January 03, 2014|By June Casagrande

Not long ago this column examined the phrase “different to.” A reader who had heard the term in a TV commercial wanted to know: Shouldn’t it be “different from”? I spent the following 500 words discussing how preposition choices are a matter of idiom — standard usage — before concluding that “different from” sure sounds better to me.

In the process, I avoided mention of the more common issue: “different than.” I simply didn’t have the ink, and I hoped no one would notice.

Someone did.

“I read your interesting discussion of the impact of idiom on grammar in the Glendale News-Press today,” wrote Fred in Glendale. “Your example of prepositions following ‘different,’ however, didn't address the locution that I see most frequently, ‘different than,’ which usually sounds strange to me, but my dictionary says that ‘than’ has been used as a preposition since 1560 to mean ‘in comparison with.’ So is ‘different than’ considered acceptable?”

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Fred was smart to start with the dictionary, that’s where most answers of this nature lie. But he was even smarter in how he worded his question: Is “different than” considered acceptable? Because when a dictionary definition leaves you some wiggle room on a usage, the matter becomes a question of whether it’s considered acceptable.

Which, of course, raises the most important question: considered acceptable ... by whom?

Misinformed sticklers — and there are a lot of them out there — do not consider “different than” to be acceptable. Not by a long shot. “A grammatical blunder.” “Endlessly annoying.” “Hurts my ears.” These are just a few of the rants against “different than” turned up by a recent Google search.

So if you want a usage that’s considered acceptable by people who believe this, you should avoid “different than” and instead use “different from.”

But what if you’re only concerned with those other types, people who get their facts straight? Well, then you have a little more flexibility.

Much of the opposition to “different than” is rooted in the idea that “than” is first and foremost a conjunction. Conjunctions like “than” are better suited to introducing whole clauses rather than nouns and pronouns.

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