Mac Musings

Does 'Bad Grammar' Have Anything to Do with Apple's Success?

Daniel Knight - 2011.01.04 -

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One of the most ridiculous things I've read about Apple's success recently argues that the key to Apple's success isn't innovative products or great marketing; it's bad grammar.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Atlantic, a magazine I once had a good deal of respect for, published a nonsense fluff piece by John Hudson, The Secret to Apple's Success: Bad Grammar, in which he argues that poor grammar is secret to Apple's success.

The idea isn't original to Hudson. He references an article on SAI by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, Apple's Cleverest - and Most Annoying - Marketing Gimmick, who states, "Apple refers to its products grammatically as persons and not as objects."

Huh? What does he mean by that?

Steve Jobs and Apple marketing don't talk about the iPhone, the iPod, or the iPad. Instead, Jobs may note that "iPhone does this" and "iPad does that", eliminating the definite article (for those who don't remember their grammar, that's the word the).

Gobry says that's the way we refer to people, not objects, and that it's so subtle that most people don't even notice it.

I guess I'm not most people, because I've found it annoying for years. Then again, I took a lot of writing courses in college and earned a B.A with a group major in English, history, and philosophy.

Maybe I'm just the kind of person who would notice.

Gobry says that "there's something just faintly creepy" about this, and then goes on to diss Apple for it's infamous Think Different ad campaign, which he also maintains is egregious grammar.

It's nonsense, but rather than think it through, The Atlantic's John Hudson pretty much parrots Gobry's thesis.

Sorry, You're Wrong

Gobry and Hudson need to open their eyes and look about them. They may see cars and computer models and mobile phones referred to with the definite article, but they will also see things where that isn't the case.

For instance, in all my years working with personal computers (starting in the late 1970s), operating systems have never been referenced that way. We never talked about the CP/M, the DOS, the Unix, the Windows, or the Linux. We referred to them the same way Apple and Jobs refer to iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and Mac.

When we refer to an operating system, we refer to it by name. There is no need for a definite article. You're running Windows or Linux or Snow Leopard; treating them as proper nouns is appropriate.

That's what Gobry and Hudson fail to see: While it is correct to speak of the Mac Pro or the MacBook Air or the third-generation iPod, it's no less correct to speak of Snow Leopard, iPad, or iPhone without using the definite article because the operating system and hardware are that tightly integrated.

That said, the end of the year is a notoriously slow time for tech news, so posting some troll bait about Apple is bound to bring extra eyes to your website. It's not responsible journalism or even good op-ed, but if your only intent is building traffic, attacking Apple is a proven tactic.

However, your English teachers would definitely take you to task for such a silly thesis.

Thinking Different

I'm also sick to death of hearing how grammatically incorrect Think Different is. That's just a bunch of nonsense.

IBM Think signs in various languagesWay back in the 1920s, IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr. came up with Think as an important slogan for his business. The goal of the motto was to get employees to think, not simply do things. As Watson said, "'I didn't think' has cost the world millions of dollars."

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, people were encouraged to "think outside the box", which goes a step beyond Watson's goal of getting people to stop acting without thinking. Thinking outside the box urged people to examine their thinking, to think about new, unconventional, and innovative ways of doing things. In other words, to do a different kind of thinking.

In the decades since, the phrase has become something of a cliché, but it's one everyone is familiar with.

There's a real difference between thinking differently and thinking different. To think differently might mean to have a mental process that functions differently from the norm (perhaps due to ADHD, alcohol, drugs, or a differently wired brain). It points to you, as the thinker, functioning differently.

Thinking differently means to think in a different way. The emphasis isn't on you using a different thought process but on the thought process itself being different or coming to a different conclusion.

But to think different means something, well, different.

Grammar 101

For instance, if you feel differently, it means you have a different opinion. Differently is an adjective (adjectives usually end with ly), which means that it refers to a person or thing, not a verb. It's about your opinion, not about your thought process.

If you feel different, it could be a cold coming on or a reaction to your meds. Different is an adverb, which means that it modifies the verb, not the subject or object of the sentence. The though process itself is what is different (in hopes of coming to a different conclusion).

If you think differently, you have a different opinion than you once did. You might no longer think as highly of Windows as you once did, which Apple would most certainly appreciate.

If you think different, you are thinking about thinking, meta-thinking, doing philosophy. The focus isn't so much on the data and the conclusions; the focus is more on the process itself.

In the worlds of Windows and Unix/Linux, the focus is on input and output. If you do this, that will happen. And that's an important thing, especially in the world of computing where we depend on our hardware and software to work reliably and produce meaningful results. A CPU or spreadsheet with a math bug is not a good thing.

But the focus of Think Different was on the process itself, the experience of using the computer, the operating system, and the applications. Sure, predictability is essential, but so if a focus on the process itself. How easy is it to use the program? How accessible are the features? How easy is it to find and try new options (Photoshop filters, for instance)? How much does the process get in the way or allow me to just do what I need to do?

It's All About the Experience

Ever since Apple moved from command line operating systems in the early 1980s while developing Lisa and Macintosh, the focus has been on the user experience. While Apple DOS, CP/M, and MS-DOS required you to think like a computer, Apple moved to a place where the computer became more transparent, and the iOS ecosystem (iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch) is the latest outgrowth of that philosophy.

Although Windows and Linux have improved vastly over the years, they are still operating systems rooted in the old paradigm of just making it work. Elegance has been added over time, mostly in response to Apple's innovations, but in the end, it's Apple that thinks different while competing operating systems do their best to emulate the Mac, iPad, and iPhone experience.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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