Thursday, January 29, 2015

How to improve writing (no. 52)

From an essay at The Atlantic. The brackets are in the original:

There’s a widespread idea that “People who make things are simply different [read: better] than those who don’t.”
There’s a widespread idea that “People who make things are simply different from [read: better than] those who don’t.”
Different from, not than. Garner’s Modern American Usage explains:
Different than is often considered inferior to different from. The problem is that than should follow a comparative adjective (larger than, sooner than, etc.), and different is not comparative — though, to be sure, it is a word of contrast. Than implies a comparison, i.e., a matter of degree, but differences are ordinarily qualitative, not quantitative, and the adjective different is not strictly comparative. Thus, writers should generally prefer from.
Garner adds that different than is “sometimes idiomatic, and even useful.” But: “When from nicely fills the slot of than, however, that is the idiom to be preferred.”

How much more helpful than Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which sums things up like so: “Though different than NP [noun phrase] is disliked by a slim majority of the AHD [American Heritage Dictionary] Usage Panel, it has long been common in carefully written prose,” followed by some Mencken snark about precisians. Garner’s Language-Change Index puts different than at Stage 3: “The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage is different from The Sense of Style. Better than, too.

Related reading
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)
Polident, different to and than (Or, what’s up with those commercials?)

[This post is no. 52 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 1

Diane Schirf said...

Apparently not written carefully enough.

I'm as fascinated by the assertion as by the style question; I see a lot of writing that makes a statement that something is commonly believed/thought/etc., without anything but gut feeling to back it up.