We have about 80 commentators in our files who discourse on the propriety of different than or different to. The amount of comment— thousands and thousands of words—might lead you to believe that there is a very complicated or subtle problem here, but there is not. These three phrases can be very simply explained: different from is the most common and is standard in both British and American usage; different than is standard in American and British usage, especially when a clause follows than, but is more frequent in American; different to is standard in British usage but rare in American usage. Here are a few examples of each construction:
My wish has been to try at something different from my former efforts —Lord Byron, letter, 20 Feb. 1816
... English would be a very different tongue from what it is —Brander Matthews, Essays on English, 1921
... not being afraid to be different from the rest of them —Flannery O'Connor, letter, 23 Dec. 1959
And the place where he was safe from that was in that penitentiary, which wasn't so different from the life he would have led if he'd been home —William Faulkner, 20 May 1957, in Faulkner in the University, 1959
Auden is gentleness itself ... and the evening is smooth, quiet, affectionate. How different he is from his new public persona —Robert Craft, Stravinsky, 1972
I agree, although my definition of ignorance and stupidity is quite different from his —Daniels 1983
She, too, had one day hoped for a different lot than to be wedded to a little gentleman who rapped his teeth —W. M. Thackeray, Pendennis, 1848
... the children grow older too and turn against them or prove to be far different than early parenthood had dreamed —Bernard De Voto, The World of Fiction, 1950
... and when Helen handed it to me, I said, "I thought these things were different than they used to be." —James Thurber, letter, 31 July 1952
Our emotions in the 20th century are affected by different conditions than in the 13th —Flannery O'Connor, letter, 19 Apr. 1958
Life in cadet school for Major Major was no different than life had been for him all along —Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 1961 (in Guth 1985)
... because the college campus of 1985 is markedly different than its namesake of 1955 —John R. Thelin, Wall Street Jour., 11 Dec. 1985
But man was then a very different animal to what he now is —Thomas Love Peacock, Headlong Hall, 1816
"... Perhaps gentlemen are different to what they were when I was young...." —E. M. Forster, A Room with a View, 1908
Sometimes a speech, because it has been prepared in the expectation of the House being in a different mood to the one it assumes in the event, may misfire —Woodrow Wyatt, Encounter, April 1954
... it soon became apparent that I would find an architectural style there quite different to anything else —Neil Ray, Geographical Mag., December 1983
... gives a sense different to the one intended — Howard 1984
The history of the controversy about different than and different to has two strands. The first is the history of the usage itself. The evidence shows to and unto as the first prepositions used, as early as the 1520s. From is first attested in Shakespeare:
This week he hath been heavy, sour, sad,
And much much different from the man he was
—The Comedy of Errors, 1593
The OED cites a 1603 comedy coauthored by Thomas Dekker for the use different to and a 1644 work by Sir Kenelm Digby for different than. From the 18th century the OED lists Addison with different from, Fielding with different to, and Goldsmith with different than.
The OED entry notes that different from was then (1897) usual, and that different to was well-attested and common in speech, but disapproved by some as incorrect. No mention is made of disapproval of different than, but a long list of standard British authors who had used it is appended. The OED opines (as does the grammarian H. Poutsma) that different than is patterned after other than. Jespersen 1909-49 (vol. 7), on the other hand, observes that different is often felt to be a kind of comparative. He mentions as confirming evidence not only the construction with than but also the tendency for different to be modified by such adverbs as much, not much, no, and any, which are frequently used with comparatives. He gives as his earliest instance the "much different" of Shakespeare's cited above. Here are some examples from our files of different with such adverbs:
The Libyan horse was far different in formation than any of the wild horses —Frank G. Menke, The New Encyclopedia of Sports, 1947
I'm no different than you —Frank Shorter, quoted in Springfield (Mass.) Daily News, 3 June 1986
... would probably require a much different philosophic idiom —Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives, 1945
... not greatly different than in the U. S. —Time, 11 Aug. 1947
And the construction after different in this next example also has the feeling of a comparative:
... which is different than any other piece we've done lately —Harper's, March 1949
The OED list of standard authors using different than had been compiled by Fitzedward Hall in his Modern English of 1872. The original objection to different than appears in Baker 1770. He found this sentence in William Melmoth's translation of Cicero's letters, published in 1753:
I found your Affairs had been managed in a different Manner than what I had advised.
Commented Baker: "A different Manner than is not English. We say different to and different from; to the last of which Expressions I have in another Place given the Preference, as seeming to make the best Sense." Leonard 1929 found the subject in no other 18th-century grammars, but Sundby et al. 1991 shows that Baker's opinion was carried down to the 19th century by a few less well-known grammarians, James Wood, John Knowles, and Alexander Bicknell. Hall may have picked it up from one of them. Goold Brown's mid-19th-century Grammar of English Grammars does not seem to mention it (at least it is not in the index of the 1880 edition), although he does object to different to and specify different from as correct. Hall's discussion was chiefly concerned with different to, which had been the subject of continuing discussion from Baker's time; mention of different than, of which Hall disapproved, was relegated to a footnote.
At any rate, Hodgson 1889 and Raub 1897 object to different than, and it has become a favorite topic of 20th-century comment. In the first half of the century different than was regularly condemned. In the second half some still condemn it, but a majority find it acceptable to introduce a clause, because insisting on from in such instances often produces clumsy or wordy formulations. But there is still quite a bit of residual hostility to than, especially when it is followed by a noun or pronoun. This may have more to do with the question of whether than can be a preposition (see than 1) than with different itself.
Different to has been the subject of more nearly continuous dispute. Disapproval began with Priestley in 1768. Baker 1770 preferred from to to and he raised the often repeated point that the verb differ takes from and not to. The argument from the verb was repeated by Lewis Carroll in an 1886 letter, by Compton 1898, Vize-telly 1906, and many others. Fowler 1926 dismissed it as mere pedantry; notwithstanding his scorn, the argument can be found as recently as Strunk & White 1979 andPhythian 1979.
Baker's objection turns up in Murray 1795, where different to is corrected to different from in two places. It probably went from Murray into other grammar books. It pops up in Alford 1866, where Alford presents the problem as sent him by a correspondent who introduces a new argument, based on the meaning of the prefix dis-in Latin: "apart." This argument is repeated as recently as Cook 1985.
Fowler 1926 stoutly defends different to, and his defense has probably done much to lessen British objection to the expression, although objection still lingers in many letters to The Times, as Howard 1980 reports.
In summary we can say that there need have been no problem here at all, since all three expressions have been in standard use since the 16th and 17th centuries and all three continue to be in standard use. Mencken 1963 (abridged) comments on a flurry in the newspapers over different than that took place in 1922. Mencken cites with approval this comment from the New York Sun:
The excellent tribe of grammarians, the precisians and all others who strive to be correct and correctors, have as much power to prohibit a single word or phrase as a gray squirrel has to put out Orion with a flicker of its tail.