Being a statistics major with an affinity for correct grammar can be taxing.
As the stereotype suggests, the majority of the people I meet in my field of study has little to no interest in or respect for the intricacies of the English language – a trait that unfortunately seems to demand exhibition in the form of twitch-inducing grammatical errors made by classmates and professors alike. This is a fact that I have come to acknowledge and (somewhat) accept. After all, as many of my mathematically inclined friends delight in reminding me, there is a reason that they aren’t English majors – and, as they often vehemently proclaim, would never want to be one.
I understand that it is rarely necessary for these friends of mine to care about things such as grammar or diction in their studies. We mathematicians have spent centuries inventing symbols to replace phrases such as “there exists” (∃) and “is proportional to” (∝) for the sheer purpose of concision in straightforward proofs. Naturally, on the rare occasion when we do feel compelled to deviate from our contrived language of numbers and Greek symbols, we generally aren’t too concerned with syntax or grammar – and for the purposes of my major, this is fine.
But for the purpose of my sanity, it is not.
My first experience with statistics heavily foreshadowed and indeed exemplifies the trend of gross transgressions against English that I have come to witness. In high school, my AP statistics teacher – as genuinely dedicated as he was to imparting his knowledge on statistical nuances to me and my fellow students – was not very well versed in grammatical or orthographical nuances, as was evidenced by his frequent misuse of prepositions and misplacement of commas in his lecture slides.
I normally dismissed these minute errors as grammatical casualties in a high school teacher’s battle against an army of blasé teenagers barely exhibiting vital signs; proofreading slides for such a vegetative audience is, I understand, rather pointless.
However, there was one repeated transgression on my teacher’s part that forced cold shivers down my spine without fail – one for which I cannot bring myself to forgive him: his misuse of the phrase “different than.” Statistics is essentially the study of comparing one thing to another – data sets, averages, distributions, etc. This comparative nature translated into an almost daily declaration from my teacher that a particular statistic was “different than” the mean, or a distribution was “different than” another.
After a month in this class, I was ready to give my own lecture on the proper usage of comparative language, lecture slides and all. They would have looked something like this:
Proper usage of “different than”
- Before a clause
Example: “The statistic was different than what we had originally expected.”
Improper usage of “different than”
- Before a noun
Example: “The statistic is different than the mean.”
Proper usage of “different from”
- Before a clause
- Before a noun
Example 1: “The statistic was different from what we had originally expected.”
Example 2: “The statistic is different from the mean.”
Somehow – and I really don’t know how – I made it through an entire year without once correcting my teacher. I don’t usually condemn my fellow lovers of math and statistics for occasionally mixing up tenses or misusing a semicolon, but this particular mistake has been omnipresent in the periphery of my statistical studies since they began, and each and every time I hear it, my English-loving soul cringes.
I realize that mathematics doesn’t often depend on such subtleties in speech or expression, and that for all intents and purposes, saying a number is “different than” another is essentially the same as saying the two are different from one another.
But in my book, that difference is as statistically significant as it gets.
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