James J. Kilpatrick

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks opens its April assizes with a motion from Mark Anderson of Hollis, Maine. He seeks an advisory opinion on the distinction between "different from" and "different than."

This is a toughie, but the court will do its best. Webster's Dictionary of English Usage begins its commentary with pooh-pooh to you: "The amount of comment on this matter -- thousands and thousands of words -- might lead you to believe that there is a very complicated or subtle problem here, but there is not." The editors then embark upon three columns of explication that are murkily clear or clearly murky, but are no help at all. There is indeed a problem here.

This court's advisory opinion gains in brevity what it loses in authority. This is the rule: Use "different from" unless "different than" sounds better. That is the long and the short of it. After all, it's your ear and your composition. Thus, "Scotch is different from bourbon," but maybe, "The hangover that follows too much vodka is different than the hangover that follows too much gin."

Plaintiff Anderson also seeks an advisory opinion on whether one speaks "to" or "with" another. The court believes that unheard overtones control the preposition. Penumbras are working here. Let us suppose that one is vacationing in a rented cottage on the fabulous Moose River in Maine. The roof begins to leak. If the owner is an old friend or first cousin, one will speak "with" him. If the owner is a real estate agent, one will speak "to" her. Such subtleties lie at the essence of style.

Emily Stalder of Baker City, Ore., moves for a ruling on "if" as distinguished from "whether." For guidance the court turns to Bryan Garner's "Modern American Usage." His advice is to use "if" for a conditional idea and "whether" for an alternative or possibility. Thus, "Tell me if you want another drink" means that the host wants a response only if you're trying to get really soused. On the other hand, "Tell me whether you want another drink" means that the host wants a yes or no.

The distinction appears more clearly when the choice is amplified, e.g., "We're staying home if it rains," and "We're staying home whether or not it rains." (The "or not" is usually a surplus redundancy, the worst kind, but in some contexts it provides a useful emphasis.)

Mary S. Long of Spencer, Ind., petitions the court for a ban on "but I digress." Her motion will be denied, but for a reason: "but I digress" is what the court has identified as a yawing phrase, i.e., a pause for delay while a sail is filling and a fresh tack begins. In ordinary speech or prose, a yaw gently signals an approaching change of subject. It is related to a barrister's "May it please the court." Such a benign redundancy can get to be an irk -- it clearly irks reader Long in Indiana -- but it cannot be condemned out of hand.

Ms. Long also moves for a ban on the reckless employment of "exponentially." This motion will be granted. The complainant provides an opportunity for one more lamentation on the operation of Gresham's Law of Language, i.e., that bad usage drives out good. The noun "exponent" and the derivative "exponential" both date from the early 1700s. Their sole purpose once was to identify a mathematical function, e.g., to raise 10 to its 10th power.

Inevitably the law went to work, and before long a precise noun, defining a precise function, had lost its exclusivity, or its virginity, or its whatever. Now, when two more candidates announce for the presidency, the field is reported to have increased "exponentially." Bah! Indeed, bah humbug! The court hopes always to be an exponent of the old copy-editing ways.

On that plaintive note the court takes a recess. Next week, anomalies?


James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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