March 27, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: different from or different than

Posted in different from/than at 6:38 am by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips


Tip: Different from or different than

A reader writes:

I am confused about when to use ‘different from’ and when to use ‘different than.’ Do they mean the same thing or are they different? Thanks for the information.

This is easy. Always use ‘different from.’ You can’t go wrong with ‘different from.’ You almost never use ‘different than.’ But, ‘different from and ‘different than’ both mean the same thing: something is not the same as something else.

The reasoning is this. Things differ from each other. Things don’t differ than each other. That just doesn’t make sense. You use ‘than’ with a comparative adjective (e.g., larger than, smarter than, prettier than). ‘Different,’ although it may sound like an adjective of comparison, is not. It is an adjective of distinction, of contrast—when you use ‘different from,’ you are showing THAT elements are not alike—with ‘than’ and a comparative adjective, you are showing HOW things differ.

There is one case in which it is okay to use ‘different than’, and that is when using ‘different from’ before a clause would become more awkward if ‘different from’ were used. For example:

The world is a lot different than it used to be.

The world is a lot different from what it used to be.

The second sentence there is really a clunker. This is an example of when ‘different than’ works. But I would only use it to avoid an awkward construction or sound.

“People on the Internet have strong opinions on the subject,” she said mildly. Yikes! Scary! Stop yelling! Stay calm.

The bottom line is this: stick with ‘different from’ and you won’t go wrong.






  1. nickfielden said,

    I like your explanation, which is clear and simply made. Perhaps I would differ with you about the exception you refer to – one additional word in that sentence does not jar with me; in fact I like the rhythm it introduces.

    But I fear you will be fighting a losing battle outside the hallowed walls of academe. Not only is ‘than’ the adopted word in conversation but it is used widely in the media, both spoken and written.

    I am a Brit living in Australia and I hear it every day on US news broadcasts. In fact, I assumed it had acquired official sanction in the States. Aussies have begun to adopt it and I have heard the use of ‘than’ even on the BBC. It was refreshing and heartening to read your defence of the use of ‘from’.

    They say that all languages evolve, and that to do so is a good thing. Maybe, but if evolution occurs as a result of mistaken interpretation I can’t see the benefit.


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