A laundry detergent brand is currently running an ad campaign with the tagline "Style is an option. Clean is not." Obviously, what they mean is that cleanliness is required while stylishness is not; but the way I interpret the tagline, what they're actually saying is that stylishness is available as a possible choice, but cleanliness is impossible — it's not on the menu.

Before I drive my family nuts[1] by muttering "optional, optional, optional " every time the commercial comes on, can y'all confirm that my distinction between option and optional  is grounded in reality?

option (n): an available item that can be chosen (or not).
optional (adj): not required; elective.

[1] Yeah, yeah, I know, too late... :p


I would agree with your interpretation of the difference between the two. From Wiktionary:

option (n): One of the choices which can be made
optional (adj): Not compulsory; left to personal choice; elective

Based on the definition of option, the advertisement tagline reads:

Style is [one of the choices which can be made]. Clean is not [one of the choices which can be made].

This implies that there are some choices available to the customer, and that one of the available choices is "style". It also states that "clean" is not one of the available choices. To be fair to the advertisers, this does not mean that clean is not part of the product. It could be included by default and therefore not an option. At any rate, this does not quite convey the intended meaning of the tagline.

Using optional would be a much better choice: "Style is optional. Clean is not." Based on the above definition, this sentence would read:

Style is [not compulsory]. Clean [is compulsory].

If that advertiser really wants to use the phrase an option, a similar meaning could be found in the sentence: "Style is an option. Dirty is not."

Note: it appears that you are not alone in questioning this tagline:


  • Thanks for those links, I'm glad I'm not alone! – Marthaª Oct 7 '10 at 3:01

The domain we are talking about that option and optional point to is not a black and white, or better not a binary one. The set contains {required, optional, not available} and the corresponding nouns for option.

Therefore, the context defines whether "clean is not an option" would point to "clean is not even available" or "clean is a requirement and therefore we do not even need to talk about it".

Context understanding depends heavily on the hearer. Even though in the context of advertisement the intention of the speaker is clear, I do understand your position. Depending on your environment and personal situation, you instinctively might tend to the other interpretation — and the advertisement does not work for you. Too bad for them.

What do I mean: Let's say you are in customer support or a mom, "This is not even an option!" would mean more like "no way", "that is not included or available", "don't even think of talking about or expecting that".

So, while semantically they are correct, it might be a bad choice for an advertisement because of the ambiguity of interpretation by the hearer.

  • Except that advertisements generally rely on the reader's being aware of the context of advertising, in which case the ambiguity is resolved. – Colin Fine Oct 6 '10 at 10:17
  • @Colin - true for most people and true after second thought, but the intuitive first impression might lead astray (as it does for the OP). Advertisement heavily depends on intuitiveness. – malach Oct 6 '10 at 14:26
  • 1
    On the contrary: true at first thought. It is the second thought, by the linguistically thoughtful reader, that finds ambiguity. – Colin Fine Oct 8 '10 at 10:53

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