Alleged Assaults on the English Language

Please note that I’m not talking politics today. Note too that I’m all for pointing out a politician’s grammar and usage mistakes. But you need to make sure you know what you’re talking about.

I was interested in a couple of recent articles about President Trump’s allegedly bad English. And I came down on the side of…the President. Let’s look at three of the complaints.

#1: “No matter how good I do on something, they’ll never write good. I mean, they don’t write good. They have people over there, like Maggie Haberman, and others, they don’t write good. They don’t know how to write good.”

Of course all those repetitions of write good should be changed to write well. But here’s the thing: Donald Trump is a New Yorker (like me – well, I’m an ex-New Yorker). New Yorkers often use good instead of well. I still fall into that old habit. When someone is talking informally, I don’t think it’s fair to blame them for slipping into regional word patterns. 

#2: Commenting on the DNC email hack during the first presidential debate, Trump said that the culprit “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

A commentator I read found two mistakes: a dangling modifier (weighs 400 pounds should be placed next to somebody) and an agreement error (their bed should be his or her bed).

I agree about the dangling modifier. But I have sworn off “his or her” (after teaching that usage – I’m ashamed to admit – for some 30 years). Did you notice that I used “unfair to blame them” in my response to #2? I have become an advocate for the singular they. (Incidentally, I would have made a change that the commentator overlooked – changing “that” to “who.”)

Here’s my version:

“...the culprit “could be somebody weighing 400 pounds who’s sitting on their bed , OK?”

#3 is a Tweet that offended somebody because a sentence has five commas.

An edited Tweet by President Trump

It’s true that I have a private rule of thumb that limits me to three commas. But here’s the thing: it’s a rule of thumb – a guide – rather than a RULE. It’s a handy warning that a sentence might be too complicated or pompous – or just plain unreadable.

I would never criticize someone for using five commas. Actually Trump’s sentence is a sophisticated one that’s correctly written.

Before you correct someone else’s English, make sure you know what you’re talking about!


2 thoughts on “Alleged Assaults on the English Language

  1. Lawrence

    I would disagree with your explanation for “…write good” Good seems to be the correct word. He is not talking about how well the media writes, but whether they write good articles or not. So we have an adjective posing as a noun object. Most people would have followed good with a noun like news, but… The adverb well, however, doesn’t fit the intended meaning.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Well, a grammarian would say that “well” is needed because it’s modifying write, not the implied word news. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t bring grammar into it at all. As I get older, I’m getting crankier and crankier about grammar. I don’t think it helps, and I suspect it has very little application to real-world English. So I’m going to stick to my original position: New Yorkers often say “good” in this context. I wouldn’t do it in formal writing, but I do it in speaking all the time (as my husband loves to point out!). Thanks for the explanation, Lawrence. I think you have a good point!

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