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Grammatically Speaking, June 2008

Dear Mr. Firsten:

I have noticed that some previous readers who wrote to you mentioned that there had been animated discussions among their ESOL colleagues as to whether one form or another was right. Well, we have had the same kind of thing happening among some of the members of our ESOL faculty. The "battle" has been raging over which preposition is correct to use with the adjective different. Is it from or than? One of my colleagues even mentioned that some people say different to. That was a new one on me! Please help us out here.


Jean Campbell

Fayetteville, North Carolina  USA

Dear Ms. Campbell:

You’d be surprised how many people are confused about this issue. Grammarians seem to agree that we use different from when a comparison is between people, animals, or things:

A volcano like Mauna Lea is different from a volcano like Vesuvius.

They also seem to agree that we use different than + a clause:

The air quality in my city is very different than it was many years ago.

However, if you want to, you can always use from. You may just have to add a pronoun such as what after it:

The air quality in my city is very different from what it was many years ago.

But these rules get blurred because today it's considered acceptable by many, especially in North American English, to use than instead of from when comparing people, animals, or things. I doubt that many native speakers will cringe if they hear somebody say A volcano like Mauna Loa is different than a volcano like Vesuvius.

So let's just say that it's preferable to follow the first two rules I've stated above, but you can go the other way if you choose to. As for different to, although I myself can't recall anybody ever saying that, I'm told that it's considered informal usage in British English, although some even in the United Kingdom consider it incorrect.

Thanks for sending in a question that has provoked many a conversation among ESOL teachers, I'm sure!

Dear Richard,

I know this issue has come up before in your column, but it never fails to get me very frustrated. I'll teach a point of grammar to my students, and then a student will find something that contradicts what I've taught—and I don’t have an explanation at the ready to respond to the student's "challenge."

Case in point: When I teach basic prepositions and their uses, I always say we use in for cities, provinces, states, and countries (in Vancouver, in British Columbia, in Oregon, in Canada). A while back, a student of mine showed me a quote she had copied from a book in our school library which said, "Thomas Ahearn. Famous Canadian businessman and inventor of the electric stove. Born at Ottawa June 24, 1855." I thought it might be a typo, but the next day she brought in a similar quote. You can imagine how perplexed I felt—and still do—about this. Can you explain this, please? Thanks!

Timothy Ushery

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Dear Timothy,

I certainly can imagine how perplexed you've been over this. I empathize! The truth of the matter is that it's considered "traditional" to use the preposition at instead of in after verbs like be born when writing some forms of biographical data and genealogical information. I have a hunch that at is used instead of in to safely take in all the surrounding areas, just in case the person wasn't actually born inside the city limits, but that's just a hunch. In all other situations, though, it's only correct to say born in + a city/town, etc.

Thank you for sending in a question about such a prepositional aberration.

Mr. Firsten:

Hello. I know the past tense of hang is hung. However, I've been noticing that when I read the newspaper, journalists will write: "he was hanged" or "he hanged himself." I've noticed this numerous times in the last few weeks. Is this an exception to the irregular verb past tense rule, or an example of how our language is ever changing? Thank you.

Kim Richey

Greensboro, North Carolina  USA

Ms. Richey:

I myself have noticed native speakers mixing up these two past forms of hang on several occasions. The long and short of it is that we use the irregular past tense (hung) when talking about something "suspended," perhaps on a wall or from a ceiling. We use the regular past tense (hanged) when we mean "executed."

It’s not something new by any means, but I'm glad you brought up this point since it seems there are quite a few native speakers who get those two past forms confused. So we'd say

I hung the antique mirror in the foyer, but They hanged the murderer at dawn.

Thanks for sending in your question!

Dear Richard,

Sometimes I hear people say I feel badly about what happened, but at other times I hear people say I feel bad about what happened. Are both correct? And if they're not, why not?

Kevin Steinke

Boston, Massachusetts  USA

Dear Kevin,

The only correct sentence in this case is I feel bad. There are two reasons for this. The first is that feel is a linking verb like be or become. After a subject and a linking verb, we need to use an adjective, and bad is an adjective. In fact, bad is an adjective that can mean "sorry," "sad," or "unwell." In your example sentence, the meaning is either sorry or sad about what happened.

Badly, on the other hand, can be an adverb, which is used with action verbs:

Even though he's taken years of guitar lessons, he still plays the instrument badly.

When people say something like I feel badly, they're exhibiting what we call hypercorrection. They're trying to be grammatically correct, so they think they should use the adverb form after a verb to describe how they feel. Ironically, they're actually making an error.

By the way, badly can also be an intensifier, in which case it means something like "very much":

Have you heard him play the guitar recently? He badly needs more lessons!

I want a vacation badly. I’m feeling burned out.

That was a great question, Kevin. Lots of people make this hypercorrection, so I'm glad you've brought it to our attention. Thank you!

Dear Mr. Firsten:

When I give lessons on the present and past perfect forms, I teach my intermediate students that we use since before everything except amounts of time, in which case we use for. So I teach them that we say He hasn't worked here since June, but He hasn't worked here for three months.

The other day it dawned on me that we can also use in after somebody said something to me, and I quickly realized after thinking about it that we can only substitute for with in in negative sentences, so we can also say He hasn't worked here in three months. Now I know that I need to amend my lessons about these prepositions with the perfect forms.

My question is, does that take care of this use of in, or is there something else I need to be aware of? Sorry to be giving you such an open-ended question, but I thought you'd be the person to ask.

Thanks for writing Grammatically Speaking. It’s a great feature that TESOL offers!

Ameera Sreenevasan

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Dear Ms. Sreenevasan:

I think it's great that you had that epiphany about prepositions we can use with the present or past perfect. Good for you! And thank you for the kind words about this column.

To answer your question, there is one other situation in which we can use in instead of for, but it doesn't occur after negatives. In this case, it occurs after a statement with a superlative adjective:

The current economic woes in the United States are the scariest in many years.

That’s the most food I've eaten in several days.

There you go, Ms. Sreenevasan. And thanks for asking a question that doesn’t come up often.

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from my March 2008 column: Should we use is or are in the following sentence, and why? Either greenhouse gases or the destruction of the forests is/aregoing to be curtailed soon.

The first correct and complete response was sent in by David R. Herz of Bet Rimon, Israel, who's originally from New York and Connecticut:

We should use is. This is like saying either one, and one is a singular pronoun. I like to tell my students to switch the words for something simple they know. For instance, "Either my mother or my sister has the key."

But first we should fix the non-parallel and improper construction. One cannot really reduce, cut short, or place restrictions on gases (e.g., You, carbon monoxide, are not allowed in my house). We should use the emission of greenhouse gases instead of greenhouse gases. As soon as we have done that, the singularity of the two options becomes obvious. 

The last point, which might be the one you were shooting for, is the plural or parallel subject choices. For the choice of verb in this case, we use the subject closest to the verb. Thus, Either your brothers or your mother is coming to get you, or Either your mom or your brothers are coming to get you.

What a beautiful and well-thought-out answer, David! You've covered all the bases since there was really more than one issue involved in this Brain Teaser. Well done, David!

And now for a new Brain Teaser. What is a ditransitive verb, and how does it work? Can you give some examples of ditransitive verbs?

Please e-mail your responses to, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten

c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center

750 NW 20th Street

Miami, FL 33127  USA

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