Saturday, July 01, 2006

It's Different to a Squid

George Bernard Shaw once said, "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." And then, many years later, Eddie Izzard said, "England and America are two countries separated by the Atlantic Ocean."

I've got an exercise bike that has more mileage than my car. Of course, that's a meaningless comparison since I've only had the car for a couple of years and I don't even remember how long I've had the bike. I try to ride it every day, but it's a lot less interesting than riding a real bike, so to prevent it from getting too boring, I always try to find something interesting to watch on TV.

Of course, finding something interesting is sometimes difficult. Finding something boring or stupid, on the other hand, is easy. For example, you can watch poker tournaments on ESPN. ESPN, in case you've forgotten, is a cable sports station, so my question is, when did poker playing become a sport? I thought it was ridiculous when they started treating billiards and pool as sports, but at least those activities involve some hand-eye coordination and physical ability. Of course, playing the piano also requires hand-eye coordination and physical ability, so it probably won't be too long before that gets considered a sport as well.

Okay, enough about that. Now here's something else you can think about: Remember years ago, when the A&E channel used to have shows that were actually about Arts and Entertainment? Now it seems to only have shows about bounty hunters and drug addicts and tattooists. I suppose that still qualifies as entertainment somehow, but if you think that A&E's standards have fallen a lot over the years, you probably won't find too many people to disagree with you.

Anyway, as I was looking for something to watch, I happened upon a cooking show hosted by Kylie Kwong, who turns out to be a Chinese-Australian chef and restaurant owner. I didn't watch the whole show, but during the part I watched, she was preparing some sort of seafood dish made with octopus. In her comparison of the octopus to other marine life, she made the observation, "It's different to a squid."

"Different to a squid"? That little remark caused me to ask myself all sorts of questions. Is she stupid? Is she illiterate? Is English her second language?

It turns out that the answer to all those questions is probably no. I say this, despite her incorrect choice of preposition, because this is actually a fairly common mistake, particularly in the United Kingdom and anywhere else the British colonists have left a lasting mark. As a matter of fact, it's so common that a lot of people probably don't even think it's a mistake.

In case you think I sound too much like a prescriptive grammarian, you're right. But I also realize that all languages change over time, and that a lot of those changes were originally mistakes that people made so often that they eventually caught on. So maybe sometime in the future, we'll all be saying "It's different to a squid."

But for now -- in the United States, at least -- that sentence implies that an experience or perception of a squid (whatever is being referred to by "it") is not the same as it is for a member of some other species. And that is not what Kylie Kwong was trying to tell us.

What she should have said is, "It's different from a squid."

Of course, a lot of people would contend that "It's different than a squid" is also acceptable. Even though I disagree, I acknowledge that there are cases where "different than" sounds better than "different from." For example, "It didn't look any different than it did before" and "They were no different than we were." To use "different from" in cases like these, we'd have to resort to something cumbersome, like "They were no different from how we were."

If you're fascinated by this (and who wouldn't be?) then you might be interested in the table below. It's from something called the Collins Cobuild Bank of English, which I found on the web, and it shows the distribution of preposition usage after the word "different."

"from" "to" "than"
------ ---- ------
U.K. writing 87.6 10.8 1.5
U.K. speech 68.8 27.3 3.9
U.S. writing 92.7 0.3 7.0
U.S. speech 69.3 0.6 30.1

Notice how much the usage of "different to" varies between the UK and the US? This is a pretty good example of what George Bernard Shaw meant. So his assertion is just as true today as it was when he said it. Of course, Eddie Izzard's statement is still true as well, but he didn't say it that long ago.