Different How?

Any time I’m writing and want to show a difference between two things, I find myself pausing. For example:

Reading a language is very different…

from writing it?

to writing it?

than writing it?

They all sound ok, but in the end I usually plump for from, as it sounds more natural, but I’m never quite satisfied, as the other two still sound basically ok too…

In cases like this, the first, best thing to do is to see what the consensus of language experts is. And their answer is: they’re all correct. However, there are some trends in usage between American and British English, which can be useful to know if you want to fit in with your peers. I came across a study done on the Oxford English Corpus (a huge database of written English which can be used to research usage patterns), which is summarised below:

Form Total occurrences on the OEC British English American English
different from 61,475 12,318 (20.1%) 28,481 (46.3%)
different to 9,945 4,371 (43.9%) 1,238 (12.4%)
different than 12,736 793 (6.2%) 8,811 (69.2%)

(source)

So we can see that different from is the most common form, and is more popular in American English.  I was surprised to see just how much more often different than is used in American English. But despite these differences in usage, it’s clear that all forms are common enough to be considered acceptable in any form of English.

What’s more interesting to me is why such different forms would exist in the first place, when most adjectives collocate with one preposition (or perhaps two, but with two distinct meanings). I think it’s because the concept of difference can seem a little abstract and hard to pin down, so we don’t know exactly how to conceptualise it, and put it into words. And while prepositions like from, to, and than don’t have meanings in themselves, there are general ways in which they’re used, and for me, looking at those gives an idea as to the different types of logic we apply when choosing what word to put after different.

I think from feels most fitting to me because it has a sense of separation and of moving away from something, and therefore works best at conveying the sense of a gap between two different things. To probably feels the least logical to me, because it has a sense of moving towards something, of arriving somewhere. But maybe some people subconsciously use it to compensate for the gap implied in difference, and make it seem less negative. And than probably feels more logical to a lot of people, because we use that in most comparative sentences (e.g. The Pacific is bigger than the Atlantic).

And that’s what most language rules boil down to anyway: they come into existence based on what feels right to most people. So I’d say don’t overthink it, and go with whatever word feels right to you.

2 thoughts on “Different How?

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