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

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?”

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.

Notice how in “Joe works harder than I do,” the words introduced by “than” make up a whole clause, complete with subject and verb. Now notice how in “This letter is from Jane,” the preposition “from” introduces just a single noun, its object, the word Jane. That’s what prepositions do.

Some people object to “different than” on the basis that “than” works only with comparatives — adjective forms that end in ER: sooner, taller, faster, and harder, etc. “Different” isn’t a comparative. It’s just a garden-variety adjective, like “tall.” And there’s no way you would ever say, “Steve is tall than Adrienne.”

In either case, the objection to “different than” is good logic built on a faulty premise. “Than” can, in fact, be a preposition, according to every dictionary I’ve ever checked. And there’s no rule that says “than” can only work with comparatives.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that “different than” has been long established as a standard idiom in English.

Garner’s Modern American Usage notes, “It is indisputable that ‘different than’ is sometimes idiomatic, and even useful.”

That doesn’t mean that “different than” is always as good as “different from.” For example, even though it allows “different than,” Garner’s still recommends “different from” in most cases.

I, too, prefer “different from.” It sounds better to me. But if you want to know whether “different than” is considered acceptable by Merriam-Webster, Garner’s and me: Yes, it is.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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