Different than from to

Now that’s a mouthful of a title. Is it (a) different to what you expected? (b) different from what you expected? (c) different than what you expected?

Should we say different from , different to or different than?

I’ve grown used to the idea that it all depends upon which side of the Atlantic (or in my case, the Pacific) you come from. I grew up with from, which is a quintessentially British English usage, but of course television emanating from the United States imported the than usage, and it has begun to fix in the mouths of a whole new generation of speakers. Sic transit gloria mundi, et cetera.

It came, therefore, as a bit of a surprise when checking the research for this post to discover that the use of than in formal US English is not universally approved in US academic style guides. In fact, it probably excites more controversy in the US than it does in NZ or the UK, at least in academic circles, where one still finds the besieged literati fighting in their trenches. And good on them.

In the rest of the world, Standard English has always mounted an argument that there is a distinction to be made between the prepositions to (“moving towards”)and from (“moving away”), and that this has significance when difference is being indicated: different to is not the same as different from, runs the argument. Given that there is probably equal philosophical and grammatical weight for each side of the argument, it seems silly to promote one over the other. It’s not the first time in English grammar that two opposite ideas end up having the same value (do conjunctions join or separate ideas?) so it becomes necessary for the user to make a choice and to be internally consistent in order to achieve correctness. Define a rule and follow it.

In effect, then, we come down to this: different to and different from are basically the same and are both acceptable anywhere in the world on any occasion, despite some grumbles. However, the peculiar US use of different than  is not yet wholly acceptable even in the Land of the Free, although I rather think that the war is already lost. Whatever brownie points you might accrue by using it to a US-speaker may be at the cost of being constantly corrected by the rest of us, who do know to from than.

Resolve the dispute by using standard English and you’ll be welcome anywhere. Isn’t that the aim?