Thursday, July 31, 2014

Polident, different to and than

[“Different to.” “Different to.”]

For some time now, spokesdentists in Polident television commercials have been telling us that dentures “are very different to real teeth.” The spokesdentists above are doing just that.

Is that a problem? No and yes.

Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) describes different to as “common and unobjectionable BrE [British English].” But there appear to have been many objections to different to in BrE. In Modern English Usage (1926), H. W. Fowler defends different to while conceding that different from is, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “now usual” — but only because of what Fowler calls “the dead set made against d. to by mistaken critics.” “That d. can only be followed by from and not by to is a superstition,” says F. We might say that for F., d. to was beleaguered and unobjectionable. MEU as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers (1965) holds to the Fowler position. MEU as revised by R. W. Burchfield (1998) says that objections to different to are “not supportable in the face of past and present evidence or of logic.” But Burchfield acknowledges that twentieth-century BrE shows “a marked preference for different from.” Is different to part of BrE? Yes. But it doesn’t appear to be the norm.

The real question is not whether different to is right or wrong: it’s why Polident’s American dentists speak BrE. But change is in the air: last night I heard a Polident dentist warn that dentures “are very different than real teeth.” Different than : that’s a problem.

GMAU ‘s excellent discussion of different acknowledges a variety of circumstances in which different than is “sometimes idiomatic, and even useful.” But Garner adds, “When from nicely fills the slot of than, however, that is the idiom to be preferred.” Dentures are different from real teeth. My guess is that Polident finally had it with people wondering about different to and switched to the ubiquitous, inelegant than. Different than, Burchfield’s MEU says, “does not form part of the regular language in Britain” but “is widespread in AmE.”

You can find the two spokesdentists above at Polident’s website, still speaking BrE.

[A Google check: “different to,” 7.03 million hits; “different than,” 15.4 million; “different from,” 47.6 million.]

comments: 2

The Arthurian said...

I never ran across "different to" until a couple years ago on the internet. Based on the source, I figured it for Australian. Close enough, I guess.

Where do you come from?
Where are you going [to]?

The words "to" and "from" have meaning similar to attraction and repulsion for magnets. The words "similar" and "different" have that sort of meaning as well. In the phrase "similar to" the two meanings coincide, and also in "different from".

But with "different to" the attraction and repulsion meanings contradict. Same with "similar from" which no one in their right mind would use. I hope.

I was thinking of "different than" as a solution. But I like your solution better. Thanks!

Michael Leddy said...

Similar to / different from : that’s a nice way to mark the distinction.