Errors & Omissions: Different from and different to - they might just be the same as...


The admission last week that this column sees nothing very much wrong with "different to" has shocked the pedant community.

Typical of the reactions is this, from Sara Neill: "I usually admire your insistence on correct grammar, so I am very puzzled by your acceptance of the horrid 'different to'. It is not only wrong; it is illogical. Difference implies movement away from something, a divergence from."

You can picture it like that, certainly. But you can best see the difference between things by placing them side by side – hence, perhaps "different to", as in "similar to" and "comparable to". Further, if it is "similar to" and "identical to", why is it "the same as"? If it is "different from" why is it "opposite to"? If "different to" is horrid, what of the common American usage "different than"? That must be really ghastly – but if it is "bigger than", why not "different than"? The answer is: simply because British English has a convention that "than" goes only with comparative adjectives. In German, als does the work of the English "than", but also appears in anders als, which means "different from". (I speculate that the American "different than" may have come from this German usage.)

At the moment, I am reading The $12m Stuffed Shark, an examination the art market by the Canadian economist Don Thompson. The other day I came across this: "Governments do subsidise artists differently than they would cabinet-makers or jewellery manufacturers." See if you can rewrite that sentence using "differently from" instead of "than". However you do it, the result will be longer and more involved – because while "than" can tolerate being followed by a verb ("would"), "from" insists on a noun or pronoun. And why "bigger than" but "the same as"? In Hungarian, an eminently logical language in its own recondite way, the same word, mint, is used in both places. Why not "bigger as" in English? No, really, why not?

I quote other languages to show that these things are arbitrary conventions, not logically necessary consequences of the way the world is. And arbitrary conventions can change. "Different to" may seem odd now to speakers of standard British English, but I suspect that it is taking over, and I challenge anybody to show that it will make the language any less vivid, expressive or precise. The insistence on "from" will one day be seen as a fetish.

But for now, I would advise British writers of public English, as in newspapers, to stick to "different from" for a while yet, and avoid causing anguish to their more traditionalist readers. As the great Frank Peters observed, language changes, but newspapers should be the last, not the first, to adopt new usages.

Burble: Wednesday's report on Newham council's notion of moving people from east London into social housing in Stoke-on-Trent included this: "In recent months the construction of new affordable housing in London has virtually tailed off altogether." "Virtually" pulls one way, "altogether" the other way. And how does something tail off altogether. How about "has tailed off almost to nothing"?

Homophone horror: Monday's report on the French election said: "This was calculated to snatch poll position in the first round." We meant "pole position" – the position at the front of the starting grid in a motor race.