Spot the difference

Do you prefer your books similar to your movies, or different from them? What about different to them? Or even different than them? In Australian usage, ‘different’ is usually paired with ‘from’, at a rate of about 6 to 1 (and ‘similar’ is usually paired with ‘to’), but it’s not the case that one is considered right and the other wrong. Fowler, in 1926, said it was a superstition that ‘different’ could only be followed by ‘from’. (He was rather acerbic in this entry, actually, saying this was a mere pedantry, a hasty and ill-defined generalisation … made by mistaken critics.) The modern edition gives more detail about usage, giving ‘different to’ as occurring from 1526, ‘different from’ occurring from 1590, and ‘different than’ occurring from 1644. The trend has been for ‘different from’ to be more accepted in British usage, and ‘different than’ to be well accepted in American usage. Even though Australians may cringe to hear ‘that red car is different than the blue one’, they will be happy with ‘that result is different than we expected’ where a conjunction, rather than a preposition is required and where ‘than’ neatly replaces the repetition of the noun in ‘that result is different from the result we expected’.

The argument that we should say ‘different from’ because we are bound to say ‘differ from’ is also a furphy as it is not extended to other similarly derived pairs. For example, we must say ‘accords with’, but we accept, indeed require, ‘according to’.

Your dictionary may well say different, however. My Macquarie says that ‘different from’ is traditional but ‘different to’ is increasingly common and that ‘different than’ is widely deplored. I wish Macquarie had space or attitude enough to nod to Fowler on this, even as I find myself preferring the ‘different from’ construction.

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