Web publishing platform builders Six Apart sort of recently released Movable Type 4. This is as good an excuse as The Name Inspector is likely to get to write about the name Six Apart, so…

Like Jackson Fish Market or 37signals, Six Apart is an enigmatic name. You have to visit the website or learn from someone else what it’s about. The two co-founders, Ben and Mena Trott, have birthdays that are six days apart. Such a personal reference might seem inappropriate for a company name, but for Six Apart it’s very fitting. This is a company that’s all about people’s stories. It helped pioneer the blogging movement, and the spirit of personal narrative pervades its website. Their “About” page prominently features relaxed, non-corporate looking photos of the founders, with Mena Trott’s face smiling adorably to welcome you to “Mena’s Corner“, and with the link text “Mena tells the story” leading to the company history.

What makes this name interesting to The Name Inspector, however, is syntax. Let’s talk about syntax, shall we?

What, that doesn’t get your pulse going? Are you under the sway of these lines from E. E. Cummings?

who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you

That’s got to be the biggest slander against language geeks since Samuel Johnson called lexicographers “harmless drudges”. Don’t take it too seriously. Cummings himself had to have quite an eye for syntax in order to mess with it so creatively. And some syntacticians will in fact kiss the hell out of you. Word is that Mr. Noam Chomsky himself is quite the smoocher. And while we’re on the topic, lexicographers can be subversive lie-abouts.

But back to the name Six Apart. Like any company name, it’s a noun phrase. It gets used where other noun phrases get used: I work at Six Apart, Six Apart bakes my muffins, etc. But we have to distinguish its internal structure from its distribution. An interesting thing about company names is that, though they always end up being used as noun phrases, they can start life with just about any syntactic category:

  • Noun/Noun Phrase: Apple, 37 Signals
  • Verb (infinitive or imperative): StumbleUpon (with preposition!), LicketyShip
  • Verb (past participle): LinkedIn (with particle!), Scribd
  • Verb (gerund): Consumating, Gifttagging
  • Adjective: Dapper, Vast
  • Adverb: Indeed, Writely
  • Prepositional Phrase: IntheChair
  • Interjection: Yahoo!
  • Sentence: AreYouWatchingThis
  • etc.

Six Apart doesn’t really fall into any of these categories. The word apart is sometimes described as an adverb, but that just reflects the fact that the adverb category is a hodgepodge in English. Things we call adverbs, and the phrases we build around them, can modify all kinds of things, such as verbs (try hard), whole sentences (Frankly, I don’t like it), adjectives (extremely interesting), and, when they’re locative adverbs, nouns (our birthdays are six days apart).

Apart can be thought of as preposition that doesn’t take a prepositional object: an intransitive preposition. It’s typically preceded by some kind of scalar measure expression, like six days or ten feet. Apart‘s best friend is probably away:

Keep it away from the rest.

Keep it apart from the rest.

Like all locative prepositions, apart and away express a locative (or temporal or other scalar) relation between two places or things. With most prepositions, there’s a grammatical asymmetry between the places or things: one is a kind of reference point or landmark, and the other is what you’re really interested in. In the sentences above, it refers to the thing of interest, and the rest is the landmark.

What makes apart really special is the fact that it can also express these things symmetrically. That’s what’s going on in our birthdays are six days apart. You’ve got two birthdays, but they’re given equal treatment in the sentence. In fact, they’re expressed together in the same noun phrase. It’s as if the meaning of from each other is implicit: Our birthdays are six days apart (from each other). If you say Our birthdays are six days away, the meaning of from each other is not implied. This sentence means ‘Our birthdays, which are on the same day, are six days from now’. So apart is a pretty unusual word.

What’s more, the name Six Apart leaves out the unit of scalar measure. Two things have to be six somethings apart, but the something is left out here. You can leave the unit out only in a context in which it’s understood. So this name acts as if it’s on very familiar terms with you, even if it’s not.

Now wasn’t that exciting?
[tags]six apart, the name six apart, movable type, syntax, syntactician, ee cummings, noam chomsky, samuel johnson, dr. johnson, preposition, intransitive preposition[/tags]

6 Responses to “Six Apart”

  1. on 13 Sep 2007 at 4:40 am Noah Slater

    It strikes me as odd that you would leave out the most obvious reference, that to the rule of “six degrees of separation” which seems VERY fitting for a social blogging platform.

  2. on 13 Sep 2007 at 9:17 am The Name Inspector

    Noah, you’re right, that was an odd omission. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. on 16 Sep 2007 at 5:56 pm catherine

    Exciting? Well, to be honest, no. But interesting? Yes! Never again will I treat ‘apart’ so lightly. I had never stopped to consider what a clever little word it is. Thanks for the read.

  4. on 20 Sep 2007 at 6:26 pm Rene

    It’s wierd but, yes, it was exciting in a quiet little way, like when you figure out a neat feature on a new gadget.
    N.I., your writing is superb and a joy to read! Thank you.

  5. on 16 Nov 2007 at 7:16 pm Tate Linden

    Having just written my first check to this company I was curious as to what the story was. Great exposition! You saved me a whole bunch of work.

    So glad to come across your site again. Adding you back into my news feed so I never forget to read your wordy goodness.

  6. on 22 Oct 2008 at 8:30 am Dookie

    As an explanation of the Six Apart name, “six degrees of separation” was my first guess – but I wondered whether or not the owners/founders had some relation to KEVIN BACON, which would have made the name Six Apart an icon of gen-X.

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