May 14, 2006

Think this

I recently mentioned that I had read a VF article about Steve Jobs. This led me to check out a recent book from my local public library: iCon / Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, by Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon. On p. 236, I found this interesting little passage:

The new Apple billboards, spare and stunning, with a simple message of "Think Different," sprang up everywhere, even painted on the sides of buildings, announcing a fresh start for the company. They boosted employee morale. It didn't matter that the phrase was gratingly ungrammatical; maybe that was even part of its charm.

The "gratingly ungrammatical" bit here depends on two assumptions:

  1. Different is supposed to be an adverb that modifies the verb think.

  2. Different is an adjective; the appropriate adverb would be differently.

So, according to Young and Simon, the message on the billboard should have been "Think Differently". Hmm.

First, it's not clear that different is supposed to be an adverb in this case. Apple started this ad campaign after Steve Jobs' return in 1997; he had been ousted from Apple some 12 years earlier. Those 12 years saw Apple hit its lowest point, with little in the way of the kind of successful product innovation it's now well-known for. Jobs was always a maverick-type, wanting to do what nobody else dared to do (and sometimes failing at it, of course). Different in this case could thus easily be interpreted as a kind of object of think, as if in answer to the question: "What is the one word you think of when you think of Apple and Steve Jobs?" The answer could be "Innovative", or "Awesome", or "Different" -- hence, Think Different.

Also, distinctions between many adjective/adverb pairs have been slowly but surely eroding in English. Different/differently is among these pairs; the OED lists different as an adjective or an adverb, in the latter case meaning the same thing as differently and with the caveat "Now only in uneducated use." I think the erosion has gone so far that the "educated/uneducated" distinction made in this OED usage point comes close to simply separating pedants from most other folks; thus, the ad campaign benefitted from the slight double meaning: Apple thinks different(ly), and (therefore) Apple is different.

(In anticipation of the rumors that will no doubt begin flying about: no, this is not the adverb that David Beaver and I came to blows over. But if David has any problem with this post, he knows where he can bring it.)

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at May 14, 2006 06:05 PM