By Barbara Falconer Newhall
I was at the gym working my pecs and abdominals on the stretching apparatus the other day when I spotted a flyer posted by a local nutritionist. Her name was Helayne Waldman and she was touting her services with some pithy fat facts — and some iffy English usage:
“Did you know – belly fat is different than other fat.”
At least one sweaty pundit had taken issue with Helayne’s belly fat sentence. Her typed “than” had been crossed out and replaced with a handwritten “from.”
Now it read: “Belly fat is different from other fat.”
But the dispute didn’t end there. Someone else came along and changed the sentence back to: “Belly fat is different than other fat.”
I was gratified. Apparently I’m not the only English speaker on the planet befuddled by the “different from/different than” question. Despite my numerous years at typewriter and keyboard, I still don’t know my “froms” from my “thans.”
At the end of my senior year at Birmingham (Michigan) High School, my English teacher, Freda Richards, handed out a sheet of paper with a list of tricky Englishisms. One of the items on her list was “different from.” Or was it “different than?” I can’t remember.
Unfortunately, I lost Mrs. Richard’s list when I went off to college, and I’ve been ruing my carelessness ever since. Which was it? “Different than?” Or “different from?”
Writing a blog post just last week I was stumped. Again. Should I write, “My father was different from his brothers and sisters?” Or, “My father was different than his brothers and sisters?”
I followed a fine old journalistic tradition – I hid my ignorance by writing around the problem. I came up with, “Unlike most of his siblings, my father left home after high school.”
But when Helayne’s belly fat poster appeared before me at the gym, mid-stretch, I knew it was time to get a handle on the issue once and for all. Back in my writing room I headed for my shelf of reference books and scanned the indexes.
• My son’s high school grammar book – John E. Warriner’s ubiquitous English Grammar and Composition. No help.
• My favorite, the elegant Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by the University of Chicago’s Joseph M. Williams. Nope.
• That old stand-by, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. Not much help. “Different from” is tersely ruled OK, but nothing’s said about “different than.”
• The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. Ditto.
Finally, I pulled out an old book that my New York roommate had given me for Christmas way back in my 20’s. It was The Careful Writer. The author was Theodore M. Bernstein, assistant managing editor of the New York Times and formerly an associate professor at the Columbia School of Journalism.
And there it was on page 139 – an entry labeled “Different From, Different Than” – situated happily between Mr. Bernstein’s thoughts on “Different” and “Differentiate.”
To my relief, I saw that the “different from” vs. “different than” issue was not a simple one. The illustrious Mr. Bernstein had devoted a full three pages to its complexities. My life-long confusion, it turned out, was justified.
Here’s what I learned:
First, says Mr. Bernstein, you’ll never be wrong if you stick to “different from.” There’s generally no argument about the okayness of “different from.”
It’s “different than” that raises the questions.
Mr. Bernstein points out that the following sentence makes sense, technically: “The grass is greener than the leaves are green.”
But this one does not: “Boys are different than girls are different.”
In other words, “different” does not really function as a comparative adjective the way such words as greener, fatter, sweatier and hairier do. Thus, for most purposes, “different than” is not a logical choice.
But, continues Mr. Bernstein, sometimes “different than” is actually the way to go. He offers this sentence from Cardinal Newman: “It has possessed me in a different way than ever before.”
In the Cardinal Newman sentence, “than” is followed by a clause. If the writer were to use “different from,” the clause would have to be rewritten, with awkward, verbose results: “It has possessed me in a different way from the way in which it ever before did.”
And so, after so many years of shirking the question, I finally have myself a rule of thumb: It’s “different from” unless “different” is followed by a clause or a clause fragment.
From now on I’m sticking to “from.” When “different than” is called for, I’m hoping my common sense will kick in and I’ll notice that this situation is different from most, and I’ll write the sentence in a different way than I normally would.
Thank you Mr. Bernstein. I have tacked a photocopy of your “Different From, Different Than” entry on the gym bulletin board next to Helayne’s poster. That done, I’m returning my attention to my belly fat.
If you’re an English usage fiend, you’ll like my post on Noah Lukeman and the mighty colon.