"Think Different" or "Think Differently"

Remember Apple's old advertising slogan "think different"? Grammar sticklers complained, but it wasn't completely wrong! Learning why can help you understand adverbs.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
5-minute read
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.

Linking Verbs

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.

Flat Adverbs

Now on to flat adverbs. You can get all the details by listening to the old 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.

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.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.