"Think Different" or "Think Differently"

Can Emmy-award-winning advertisement be ungrammatical?

Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
October 7, 2010
Episode #243


In a recent episode, you learned that adverbs do not always end in “-ly,” so perhaps you now think differently about adverbs. Wait a minute, though. Should we have said, “Think different,” as Apple does in its advertising slogan? Let’s explore verbs and adverbs further.

Review of Linking Verbs and Flat Adverbs

Before analyzing the advertising slogan, we need to review two concepts we’ve discussed in previous episodes: linking verbs (in the “good” versus “well” episode) and flat adverbs.

Linking verbs, such as “to be,” “to seem,” “to taste,” and “to look,” often describe a state of being or feeling. Usage expert Bryan Garner explains them this way: “These verbs connect a descriptive word with the subject; hence the descriptive word following the linking verb describes the subject and not the verb” (1). For instance, in the sentence “He is handsome,” the linking verb “is” connects “He,” the subject, to “handsome,” an adjective.

Now, let’s contrast linking verbs with action verbs. Action verbs, such as “to jump” and “to yell,” describe activities. If you want to describe an action verb, you need to use an adverb. If someone paid you a lot of money, you can’t say, “He paid me handsome.” You have to say, “He paid me handsomely.” In that sentence, you’re describing how he paid you—with the adverb “handsomely.” You’re not describing how cute the man is.

“Think different” may mean “Think about computers in a different way.”

Now let’s assess if “to think” is a linking verb. We’ll use a quick test: If you can substitute the verb “to be” and the sentence still makes sense, then the verb in question is probably a linking verb. We can change “Think different” to “Be different,” so “to think” passes the linking-verb test.

Now on to flat adverbs. You can get all the details by listening to the recent episode on this topic, but for now, a flat adverb is an adverb that has the same form as its related adjective. Examples are “fast,” “hard,” and “straight,” so you are allowed to say, “Think fast,” “study hard,” and “sit up straight.” The question before us now is this: Is “different” a flat adverb? Although it doesn’t appear in any definitive list of flat adverbs, the trusty American Heritage Dictionary explains that “different” can be an adverb and that it means “in a different way or manner” (2). This dictionary offers the example “Carol didn’t know different.”


The “Think Different” Slogan

We’ve determined that “to think” is probably a linking verb, and that “different” can be an adverb. Therefore, “Think different” is perfectly acceptable. Right? After all, the advertisement won an Emmy, and the slogan was part of a successful advertising campaign (3). Well, many who hear these two words together do a double take—or a double listen—and it’s true that traditionalists would not urge the public to go around saying, “Think different.” Most regular citizens would agree that there’s something different about this statement. Even if you don’t mind it, you do have to admit that it sounds slightly odd. Perhaps Apple intended the slogan to be odd. Let’s try to figure out Apple’s thinking.

[[AdMiddle]We’ve already determined that a linking verb joins a subject with what describes it. In “Think different,” however, there is no stated subject. Maybe we can construe “Think different” in the same way as the idiomatic expression “Think big.” It would be reasonable to say that both “big” and “different” are being used as adjectives here, and that each adjective is modifying an implied noun. The implied noun for “Think big” might be “picture” or “goals,” as in think about the big picture or embrace big goals. As far as “Think different,” “computers” could be the implied noun. Maybe Apple’s slogan is a call to action for you, the computer-buying public, to view the company’s computers as different. 

On the other hand, if we consider that “different” might be acting as an adverb, not an adjective, then “Think different” might mean “Think about computers in a different way.” The traditional method of describing how someone changes an opinion is to use “differently,” as in “After John robbed the bank, Caitlin thought differently of him.” This means that Caitlin’s view of John has changed. You can’t say, “Caitlin thought different of him.” Although “think differently” is correct, perhaps “think different” is acceptable, too. Perhaps it’s in the same vein as “think smart,” which clearly suggests that someone be smart.

So which is it? Is Apple telling us that its computers are different, or does Apple want us to think in a different manner? It’s up for debate, and you can probably make a case for both.

The “Think Different” Commercial

If you look at the transcript of the Apple commercial (4) or watch it on YouTube (5), you’ll discover that the ad focuses on rebels, misfits, and troublemakers, and it uses the line “They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo.” Apple seems to view itself as a rebel, too. After all, seemingly stuffy IBM and Microsoft have been Apple’s competition for decades.

Apple’s ad also says, “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” But can a commercial change how the public perceives traditional grammar? It appears logical to assume that Apple knowingly used a statement that listeners might construe as ungrammatical but that the company didn’t mind, because it is rebelling against the status quo. Further evidence in favor of this view is that although the slogan is “Think different,” Apple’s commercial does use the line “The ones who see things differently.” If Apple believed that “think different” and “think differently” were interchangeable, the ad might have stated, “The ones who see things different.” This phrasing might have been too different, so in that case Apple stuck with traditional grammar.

Steve Jobs seems to like the questionable-grammar approach, since he also pushed the envelope in 2008 by calling a new iPod the “funnest iPod ever,” which made some people ask, “Is funnest a word?

Is Think Different Wrong?

In conclusion, most grammarians would not recommend using iffy grammar in written essays and formal documents, but advertising is anything but formal. What do you think of Apple’s slogan? Leave a comment. And do you think perhaps that the public will soon start complaining about Waste Management's “Think Green” campaign? Is it OK to sacrifice traditional grammar for the good of the environment?

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & Grammar Girl

This article was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

  1. Garner, B. 2009. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition, pp. 19-20. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. “Different.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition, p. 505. 2006. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  3. Cult of Mac. “Interview: The Man Who Named the iMac and Wrote Think Different.” www.cultofmac.com/20172/20172.
  4. Mike Geyer’s Blog. www.edork.com/Words/ThinkDifferent.asp.
  5. YouTube. “Think Different” commercial. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oAB83Z1ydE.