February 18, 2010

Language tips: Prefixes and hyphens & different from or than

Posted in different from/than, hyphens and prefixes, prefixes and hyphens at 10:49 am by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips

Tip 1: Hyphens and prefixes

A reader writes:

I am making modifications to a manuscript I submitted to the Journal of General Internal Medicine. I received the following comment:

“Preintervention” and “postintervention” should be spelled “pre-intervention” and “post-intervention”.

I was wondering if you had any input on how I should address this issue? Is there a reference to which I can refer to back up my case that it should be ‘preintervention’?

Yes, and pay attention because this is important: This is a matter of style, not substance. Every journal has its own house style, and because it is about style, there is no right or wrong answer. If this is JGIM’s style, make the correction, and let it go. Make no attempt to defend or back up your case! Your case is that you want this manuscript published!

If someone was unfairly criticizing your methods, analysis, findings, or conclusions, then you defend your case, but in a manner of style, it’s only a question of an opinion, and that is DEFINITELY NOT where you want to expend your energy-especially, when the only one who could end up getting hurt is you!

Tip 2: Different from or than

A reader writes:

A WLUT suggestion: Different than or different from? I learned (from H W Fowler?) that the latter is almost always the correct form.

We addressed this a couple of years ago, but looking back, I see that I only devoted 5 lines to the discussion. Perhaps I can do a bit better.

First, the reader is correct that ‘different from’ is standard. ‘Different than’ is not-except in some situations which I will explain. That the reader learned it from H. W. Fowler is incorrect. Fowler never addressed the issue of ‘different than.’ Instead, he addressed another word combination, and his stance on this is completely nuts (and I say this with all due respect as Fowler is one of my language heroes). What Fowler talks about is ‘different to,’ and what he says is this:

That different can only be followed by from and not to is a SUPERSTITION.

He goes on to explain that ‘different to’ is the same as ‘averse to’ or ‘compare to.’ I say this, “Get out of town! There is never a time or place where it is appropriate to use different to.”

So this first point I want to make is simple: NEVER use ‘different to.’

[NOTE: After referring to my other UK language mavens (e.g., Bryson and Goodman and Edwards), I am going to concede that ‘different to’ is a UK thing, but still, I would advise against using it. It is not universally accepted and can be viewed as, hmm, let me think, WRONG?]

Moving on to ‘different from’ or ‘different than.’ Remember this, ‘different from’ is always correct. You really can’t go wrong using ‘different from.’

The issue is that ‘than’ is supposed to follow an adjective of comparison (e.g., smarter than, fatter than, noisier than), and different is not an adjective of comparison (although, as Garner notes, it is an adjective of contrast). There are times, however, when ‘different than’ has its place. And that is often when the words are followed by a clause. For example, both of the following sentences are acceptable:

The results of the survey turned out to be very different than I expected.

The results of the survey turned out to be very different from what I expected.

In general, I would stick with ‘different from’ unless it seems more awkward than ‘different than.’ I’ll let Strunk and White have the last word.

Here logic supports established usage: one thing differs from another, hence, different from.

And there you have it.


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