Think Different

It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say.

Steve Jobs, regarding “Think Different”

Actually, according to Fowler’s definition of “grammatical” that just means it’s grammatical. It’s sad that Jobs felt like he needed to defend it, and even sadder that Isaacson (a Pullitzer Prize winning writer) doesn’t seem to know it. But then there’s a whole species of grammar Nazi which understands one grammatical rule (adverbs modify verbs, for example) and then seeks to apply it to cases which don’t fit.

Incidentally, for a very insightful critique of the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, look no further than here. (And note that “look no further” is exactly the same kind of construction as “think different”, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Replace the verb “think” with the verb “feel”. When you wear scratchy wool close to your skin, does it make you “feel different”? Some grammar Nazis would argue that you should “feel differently” even though, upon examination, this would seem to mean “feel in a different way”, e.g. not using nerve endings but some other mechanism. Let’s change the adjective to “cold”. When you’re out in the snow without enough warm clothing, do you “feel cold”? When your dog died, did it make you “feel sad” or “feel sadly”? When you don’t have enough to eat, do you “feel hungry” or “feel hungrily”? Do you find English grammar “confusing” or “confusingly”?

This is no different in terms of grammatical construction than thinking different, thinking big, or thinking positive. It’s a different construction from thinking differently (using your genitals, perhaps?), thinking largely (about this versus that), or thinking positively (whatever that means).

Even the people who write dictionaries sometimes get confused. Some of the words most frequently and idiomatically used in this fashion are in some case recategorized as adverbs (e.g. when I got into a fight on this topic with any English teacher in high school, some of the phrases I gave as examples were rendered useless by the OED having defined them as adverbs — when one’s father “thinks only good” of you, this doesn’t mean that his brain is working unusually well when he thinks about you?).

So, what’s going on here?

Consider the following famous remark:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.

G. K. Chesterton

Note that “wanting”, “difficult” and “untried” are all adjectives. The sentence makes perfect sense and everyone knows what it means (although many would prefer to not think about it), both upon first examination and careful examination (i.e. Fowler’s definition of “grammatical”). What’s happening here is that the words “to be” are implied in many English sentence constructions.

Why write this blog post? If one person who writes a clean, beautiful sentence while ignoring the idiotic only ever place an adverb next to a verb regardless of what you’re actually trying to say “rule” and finds this rant, I shall consider it worthwhile. (And note that “worthwhile” is an adjective.)