Communications: RIP “different from”

The death has not been announced of the phrase “different from” but it’s clearly a phrase whose time is up. In the last week alone, I’ve heard “different to” used by Radio 4 journalists and seen it in a broadsheet newspaper. I can’t even remember when I last heard or read “different from” in even the most erudite circles; it’s now on its final journey to wherever it is that dead phrases go. Unless breeding pairs of “different from” are found in the wild, or in captivity, it risks becoming entirely extinct (when did “gone extinct” gain currency, by the way? Such a horrible, clunky phrase – but I sense that’s a rant for another time).

In the linguistic evolutionary race “different to” has clearly won out. Never mind that my National Council for the Training of Journalists and The Times style guides are emphatic that the usage is “’different from’, never ‘to’ or ‘than’”, that horse has bolted and may already be in a ready meal near you. Catching such mistakes used to be the job of sub-editors but, in these cost-cutting times, they have become as endangered as the linguistic standards they used to protect.

I don’t suppose many people would notice, let alone mourn, the loss of “different from”, partly because “different to” is perfectly comprehensible and also because it’s analogous with other common usage such as “similar to”. (Analogy has been responsible for many of the curiosities of the way English works, especially with regards to spelling. For a fuller explanation of this, I can recommend David Crystal’s book Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling, a fascinating and very readable analysis).

However, there are language changes happening now that raise hackles – chiefly in older/better educated people. That’s not simply snobbery: anyone with a vague understanding of English grammar has a gut feeling for why some of the newer coinings are illogical, even if they couldn’t cite the grammatical rules that underpin them.

One particular bugbear is the widespread use of “should of”, “could of” etc., mainly amongst younger people. The grammatically correct form is “have” + past participle of a verb, such as “should have done”, “could have been”. Modern kids neither know nor care about this stuff. If challenged, they will merely prove their point by saying “have” out loud. In many people’s normal speech “have” gets contracted to “‘ve” which sounds a lot like “of”. Therefore, it’s completely logical to reflect that sound in the written form. Let’s not get into the lack of grammar in the school curriculum just now, eh?

Should of” is a change that may well become the norm over time. The young people currently growing up with it will pass it on to their children. Some of the people who use “should of” will become teachers. If they don’t know why that usage doesn’t make any sense – perhaps they were never taught, or preferred the analogy to the sound of spoken “have” – they will be unable to correct their pupils and the altered form will become ingrained.

Hang on, though, if people understand what they mean, where’s the problem? Language is about communicating; the means of doing so has always been mutable. We may like to think that an approximate standardisation of spellings came in with Dr Johnson’s dictionary and the mass availability of the printed word, but it’s by consensus not diktat. There have always been people who couldn’t spell well – some of our greatest thinkers wouldn’t exactly get a gold star on the spelling test – but spelling ability clearly doesn’t equate to lack of ideas or originality. Ask Einstein.

It’s true that living language is never a static or finished thing and artificial attempts to keep it that way are doomed to failure, as the Académie française would probably struggle to admit – hence “le weekend“, “le footing“, and so on. Linguistic innovation will always occur from necessity – when technological change means new things need to be named and described, for example –  or when cross-pollenation with other cultures leads to the adoption of new words. There is also a natural tendency to create novelty words, often by mashing up two existing words into a new form, like “amazeballs” or “chillax”, and these can be witty and imaginative, or just excruciating. Luckily, most of these tend to be fashionable whimsies that are fairly short-lived.

I try – and mostly fail – not to get too hung up on “grammatical correctness” because it can be stultifying and because it can ossify language rather than giving meaning room to breathe. Where I do have a problem is where inaccuracy renders the meaning unclear or ambiguous, because then language has failed in its purpose. For instance, it’s now quite common to see “defiantly” used instead of “definitely” and this, I’d argue, is a problem because “I defiantly would buy product X” is entirely different in meaning from “I definitely would buy product X”. Even though context and experience may mean we can get the correct meaning eventually, it may take a couple of re-reads to be certain. Horrid as the common mis-spelling “definately” might be, at least you know which word the writer is aiming for: it’s unambiguous in meaning. Similarly, a grammatical grain of sand like “should of” may be annoying, but it doesn’t stop the meaning getting across and that’s one reason why it will probably prevail.

What’s so fascinating about the times we live in now is that the rate of change is happening so quickly. We can see these innovations, adaptations and stagnations happening right before our eyes. English will change a lot because of the influence of other cultures which are using a sort of English as their common tongue, especially online. The speed at which the technology in our lives changes shows little sign of slowing down. Our language is keeping pace with it and one of the prices we pay for linguistic evolution is the loss or mutation in meaning of some, once common, words and phrases. Forms that are perceived as archaic are likely to be dropped from everyday language and fall into disuse. This evolution is worthy of celebration – there’s life in the old language yet –  so why do I feel a little bit sad to see “different from” go?

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