“Different to”: Really?

I first looked at the expression “different to” (where Americans would say “different from” or “different than”) in 2013 and categorized it as a “Doobious NOOB,” so infrequently did it come up in the U.S. Two years later I upgraded it to “On the Radar,” because it showed up in an American publication–but then a commenter pointed out that the writer of the article was from London, and I downgraded it again. (And by the way, I’d advise reading all the comments on those two posts before commenting on this one–they offer a lot of good info and insight on the “from”/”than”/”to” forms.)

“Different to” appeared yesterday in the New York Times in a quote from a definitely American person, but I’m dubious. The person was the singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who very sadly died at the age of 38. His obituary included a quote from him in The Scotsman in 2015:

“I always knew there was something different about the way I used drugs and drank to the way my friends did.” (Emphasis added.)

Does the distance from “different” make it more likely that Earle would have used “to” rather than “from” or “than”? I would say not. My hunch is that he didn’t say it, but rather that the Scotsman writer (probably unthinkingly) rendered the quote to sound more natural to his or her ears and readers. And that’s why I’m introducing a new category, “Really?”, for dubious quotes supposedly by Americans in British publications.

And by the way Google Books Ngram Viewer suggests that even in British books, “different from” is much more common than “different to,” even though the latter has steadily increased since about 1960. (And I’m sure would be significantly more common in speech and other informal usage.)

In any case, I’m still waiting to encounter incontrovertible examples of Americans saying or writing “different to.”

17 responses to ““Different to”: Really?

  1. Similar to. Different from. I’d never thought about it before, but, yes, on reflection, the American “different from” is the obviously grammatically correct form, although I am guilty of using the British “different to”. But I will now mend my ways!

  2. Or, looked at another way, if ‘similar to’ is correct, ‘different from’ seems wrong. Certainly ‘similar from’ is wrong. If you add ‘in comparison’ after each word, it would suggest that ‘to’ is the proper form.

    I’ve rarely come across different than over here.

    • If you think about it, ‘similar to’ brings things together into some shared category, whilst ‘different from’ has them in categories separate from each other.

  3. Curiously, I know a number of people here in the UK who consider “different to” a nasty Americanism. My copy of the 1965 edition of Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage gives “different from” as the usual form in British English but says “different to” is acceptable (and refers readers to the OED). It;s “different than” that he objects to.

  4. English East Midlands (and I’ve read the comments on the other posts):

    I say, and believe I’ve always said, “different from” – I thought that “different to” had only recently taken off in the UK, an example of the increasingly chaotic things we hear, a chaos most notably promoted by the BBC.

    If I’ve heard “different than” from a UK speaker, I’ve erased the memory as too painful.

    • I’ve just checked the OED and there is a citation from 1603: “How different Art thou to this curs’d spirit here.” And one from Thackeray in 1852: “The party of prisoners lived with comforts very different to those which were awarded to the poor wrtches there.”

  5. In grade school in Ohio, I was advised that it was better to recast the sentence than use “different than,” so negative were the feelings about it among teachers of English. I often hear “different to” on British media, and have to admit it avoids the “different than” dilemma.

  6. I almost never hear a British person say anything other than “different to.” I am a rather evangelical adherent of the “different from” school, so I notice when people use “to” or “than,” and I encounter both– to my mind inferior– choices with great regularity. My wife is British and my brother lives in London with his five very British kids, so I have occasion to hear “to” from them. I hear “than” from my own American children constantly. So I can’t win.

  7. Here in the West Midlands of England, I have only ever heard “different from”.

  8. I am firmly in the ‘different from’ camp, considering it a prepositional imperative and an impossibility to ‘differ to’, plus, in certain contexts, ‘to’ renders the meaning unclear or ambiguous. However the stand here against ‘to’ has been lost long ago and while Americans’ familiar ‘different than’ might make me fume, hearing a Brit saying it makes me combust. I did hear the abominable ‘than’ used on BBC television recently by an Irish presenter – Ireland is even more Americanised than we are – but the last straw was hearing a government minister – Mr Buckland, I believe – saying it in the House of Commons. Now it is also beginning to appear in online media here.
    I know lots of arguments have been and will be made for ‘to’ and even ‘than’ and English is full of anomalies – we do also hear people saying ‘separate from that’ or ‘separate to that’, meaning ‘as a separate consideration’ – but I’m sticking to ‘from’ and am pleasantly surprised to learn that Americans also use it.

  9. I’ve never understood the argument that just because you can’t say “differ to” you can’t say “different to”. “Different to” just sounds right to my ears.

    I am reminded of something I heard on the radio about 25 years ago when a linguist was about to give the BBC Reith Lectures. The interviewer asked her of her views on double negatives. She said that a double negative was a useful intensifier or something like that.
    “But isn’t a double negative logically a positive?” asked the interviewer.
    “What has logic to do with language?”

    • Mutual incomprehension it is, then, My ears would burn with shame if I were ever to utter the dreaded ‘to’. ‘Different’ is like ‘divergent’ isn’t it, implying movement away from rather than to? Or ‘distinct’. You wouldn’t say something was ‘distinct to’, would you?
      Merriam Webster: ‘Definition of divergent
      1a : moving or extending in different directions from a common point : diverging from each other
      //divergent paths
      b : differing from each other or from a standard ‘
      Two lovely ‘froms’ there.

      • There’s something about the repeated ‘f’ sound in “different from” that makes it uneuphonious for me.

  10. I don’t think “different to” is a Britishism. I think it’s a non-standard usage that any competent editor in any English-speaking country would fix, except in direct quotation.

    • If, as the OED says, it’s been around for at least 400 years, surely it has some claim to now being standard. As I said, my 50+ year-old book on “correct” English claims it’s acceptable.

  11. I say “different from” but “different than” is awful! ‘Different’ isn’t a comparative adjective (if there were such a word it would be ‘differenter’, which doesn’t exist).

  12. Well, searching my own blog, I was able to find three instances in which I (a native AmE speaker) wrote “different to.” In one of those instances, I was quoting William K. Everson, an author born in England in 1929 (d. 1996 after many years living in the USA). I may have been (semi-) consciously imitating BBC-speak at the time.

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