Q&A: ‘Different from’ vs ‘Different to’ vs ‘Different than'

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Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, it’s different from previous questions and different to future ones…

Q: Hello AWC. What are “the Ides of March”? I remember the story about Julius Caesar and he was told to “beware the Ides of March”…
A: Well yes. Caesar was killed on March 15th – a date known as the Ides of March, basically the middle day of the month.

Q: So were there Ides in other months too?
A: Yes, every month – we just never heard about them, presumably because a Roman Emperor didn’t die on those days. It’s a bit complex, but essentially the Romans didn’t really number their months. Instead they’d use the moon to line up three points each month – one of them being the Ides, which was usually the 13th day, but the 15th for March, May, July and October. Ides comes from the Latin Idus (origin unknown).

Q: So the Ides is roughly the middle of a month?
A: Essentially. It doesn’t fully translate, as the modern Gregorian-based calendars (first adopted in 1582) are a little different from the lunar model they used back then. But yeah, that’s close enough.

Q: Okay, next question. You just used “different from” in that last answer. Could you have used “different to” or even “different than”?
A: Well this is an interesting one. It happens a lot when we write – we want to show contrasting things. Typically we’ll use the adjective “different” and follow it with a preposition such as “from”, “to” or “than”.

Q: Please, do go on.
A: Most language purists are happiest with “different from” – “The coffee I drink at home is no different from a cafe’s coffee.” However, it’s very common to insert “different to” or even “different than” into the same sentence and produce equally acceptable results. Boffins would grudgingly accept “to” over “than”, but “from” is the pick.

Q: But all three are acceptable?
A: Well, yes. In fact, “different to” even predates “different from”. Ever since the 1700s, when it was identified that it was becoming a three-horse race (it had been four, with “different against” dropped along the way), all three options have been in play – and each used by famous writers over the years.

Q: I wonder why they don’t have more three-horse races? They would certainly be easier to bet on.
A: You’ve just answered your own question. Anyway, the reason “from” has been favoured is that the word “different” was always about contrasting, not comparing – as fine a line as that may seem. “Different from” was the natural progression of that thought. However, these days the lines get a little blurry.

Q: After midnight on a Saturday night the lines outside the kebab shop get a little blurry. Same thing?
A: You know it’s not.

Q: So does it matter where you live as to which one you might use?
A: It sort of matters where you live. “Different from” is fairly universal, but if you live in the UK or its buddies (including Australia), you’re more likely to also want to use “different to” – it taps into the “compare” end of contrasting things. Meanwhile, in America, they like to use ‘different than’ on a regular basis. It can sound a bit odd to everyone else (almost like ranking things): “Your shirt is different than his shirt”.

Q: Okay, so consistency is the key?
A: The key that unlocks almost every door in this messed up manor we call the English language. So, while we recommend “different from” to keep everyone happy, if you do use another version, stick with it consistently.

Q: So, “The ‘Ides of March’ as a date is different from the movie The Ides of March starring George Clooney.” Yeah?
A: Very different indeed. You don’t see March 15th being crowned sexiest man alive…

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