Monday, August 28, 2017

Donald Trump’s spelling

In The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo makes a contrarian suggestion: “There are lots of reasons to criticize Mr. Trump’s policies, conduct and statements, especially his tweets. But we should lay off his spelling.” Manjoo makes three arguments: In a medium that encourages immediacy and error, a spelling mistake “suggests humanity.” To criticize spelling is “elitist.” To focus on spelling “blinds us to content.” I’ll address each point:

~ Trump’s spelling mistakes — hear by, unpresidented, for instance — suggest much more than their writer’s “humanity.” They are signs of someone who reads very little. One learns how to spell words correctly by seeing them, again and again, in print, correctly spelled. Trump is, famously, a non-reader of books, and his errors are often those of a writer who spells by ear. And his administration’s carelessness about names and words in non-Twitter contexts suggests not ”humanity” but carelessness.

~ Manjoo argues that it’s an elitist mistake to equate correct spelling “with a good education and outsize intelligence.“ No. If anything, only the most naïve among us would equate correct spelling with intellectual superiority. Correct spelling, like correct punctuation, calls no attention to itself. When we read words in print, correct spelling should be something to take for granted. It’s certainly not evidence of a brainiac at work.

And to argue that ”everyone’s sloppy sometimes” and that Barack Obama and his staff also made spelling mistakes is a feeble defense. Carelessness is carelessness. But one can also look at the evidence of Obama error that Manjoo cites and consider whether, say, misspelling Frantz Fanon’s first name as Franz is at all comparable to mistaking, say, heel for heal. The first mistake is evidence of a writer who reads; the second, evidence of someone who doesn’t.

~ Yes, misspellings can blind us to content. And here I’ll cite Bryan Garner, writing about what he calls “the fallacy of intelligibility”:

Wrong words are like wrong notes in music: they spoil the tune. And wrong words make readers stop thinking about your message and start pondering your educational deficits.

If anyone tells you otherwise (that is, if someone says it don’t make no never-mind), don’t believe it.
I’ve had relatively little to say about Donald Trump’s misspellings, which speak for themselves. This post, like Farhad Manjoo’s column, has no mistakes in spelling.

Related reading
“Tapps” (A poem)
“No challenge is to great” (An inaugural poster)
No job too small (A handbill)
All OCA spelling and misspelling posts (Pinboard)

comments: 5

The Arthurian said...

In what I expected to be a final proof-read the other day, I caught myself using it's where I needed its. Couldn't believe it. The further I get from my school years, the more such mistakes I find... and probably, the more I don't find. Not making excuses for anyone.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that President Trump's spelling errors are part of a cater-to-the-base strategy. (Or maybe he's making fun of them.)

But I'm with you. If my concentration on what I'm reading is distracted by bad spelling, or incorrect wording or punctuation, I start to doubt the quality of the writer's thinking.

It must be much worse for you: I'm sure you see far more errors than I. (Every time I write to you, I grit my teeth.)

Michael Leddy said...

I’ve wondered whether the misspellings could be a Jedi mind trick meant to appeal to ”the base” by stirring up snooty critics. But his lack of interest in reading makes me think the mistakes are genuine. Certainly “no challenge to great” in the inauguration poster can’t be deliberate.

Grit not! I would never correct a correspondent’s writing. But I know what you mean, and I feel the same way when I write to various people.

Fresca said...

Yeah, and also, I don't judge blogs and tweets written by casual writers (including me) the same way I judge the writing of someone whose job it is to represent me and my country to the entire world. (I don't even proof my own posts as well as I do my work for the publisher.)

JuliaR said...

Thank you for making a reasoned argument about the effects of misspelling and similar mistakes. I too am jarred out of the content of what I am reading by these sorts of things. (I edited these two sentences twice while writing them!)

(Sorry I've been away for so long. I came back to fetch How to Email a Professor because now I am a TA at BGSU in the department of philosophy and once again, students need to learn about such things. I also want to up my game when it comes to my own writing and your blog is the place to get inspiration for that.)

Michael Leddy said...

Hello Julia! Thanks for reading and saying hello, and best wishes for the new year. I miss that new-year feeling. I almost wish I was teaching an advanced writing class so that I could hear what students might say about this column.