Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 23, 2015

Different column


Vic Fleming

I’m fortunate to count Lee Martin, assistant director of Vanderbilt University’s English Language Center, as a weekly reader. Most recently, he writes about my having written, in a recent column, “No different than watching reruns on regular TV, right?

“Admittedly,” Lee chides, “this usage is wildly popular in spoken American English …, but it’s still incorrect.” After citing me to a URL, he concludes, “I was heartened to learn that the New York Times crossword typically ‘kicks your rear’! Maybe it’s not just that I’m intellectually challenged, after all.”

Oh, how I wish I were right on this one! But I’m not. At least, I don’t think I am. Two weeks earlier, when I wrote that column, I was pretty sure I was. Because, you see, my proofreader, Tracy Bennett, who manages the copy editing department at Mathematical Reviews in Ann Arbor, Mich., had called me on this.

I know that rule, I told myself. Almost always, different is followed by from. And most of the time, when than is clearly called for in similar circumstances, then differently is needed. Because different is an adjective, differently an adverb, from is comparative, etc. Or something like that.

But I was pretty sure that having a clause following different, rather than a simple noun or noun phrase, justified my choice. Than is a subordinating conjunction that kicks off such a clause. Tracy loves it when I throw words like this at her. But she never flinches. And she’s seldom wrong.

My high school English teachers waxed eloquent in their deliveries of the “different from – differently than” sermon. Annually they held forth, usually in the first class of the year. And they taught me well! I consider myself second to none in using “different from” when “different from” is called for! My daily routine involves watching for this stuff. I have no hourly employee to delegate it to.

I guess I felt that, with all those words following than, it just sounded right. Lee’s firm in his resolve that “watching reruns” is a simple gerund phrase – no subordinate clause in sight. I get that. Any reader with a loophole is invited to chime right in.

Jane Strauss, author of “The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation,” posted the following note on her blog a few years before her death:

Different from is the standard .... Most scholars obstinately avoid different than, especially in simple comparisons, such as ‘You are different from me.’ However, some ... are more tolerant of different than, pointing out that [it’s] been in use for centuries and has been written by numerous accomplished authors. These more-liberal linguists point out that a sentence like ‘It is no different for men than it is for women’ is clear and concise, and rewriting it with ‘different from’ could result in a clumsy clunker like ‘It is no different for men from the way it is for women’.”

The URL Lee cited me to advocates use of different than “when you want to follow the expression ... with a clause. The word than then serves as a conjunction that gets the clause going. ...’This experience was different than he thought it would be.’”

And this column, being different from most, concludes with me saying, “Uncle!” (Or is it my saying, “Uncle!”?)

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.