Listening to former SNL comedian, now United States Senate comedian, Al Franken read his book, it became clear that any mistake, any misunderstood joke, could end up splashed across social media as if he were just a total, idiotic, screw-up. Some people are in the public eye, and they can’t afford to court malevolent scrutiny.
Trump was that sort of person, whose every move, from dotting eyes to twitting covfefe, would cause howls of outrage. At the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo cried, “leave Trump alone!”
As protesters across the country marched in opposition to neo-Nazis this month, President Trump did something truly shocking on Twitter: He issued a level-headed statement praising the marchers.
“Our great country has been divided for decades,” he wrote on Aug. 19. “Sometimes you need protest in order to heal, & we will heal, & be stronger than ever before!”
But Mr. Trump’s belated attempt at statesmanship was overshadowed by what, for him, has become a frequent problem: He had flubbed his spelling. In some earlier versions of his olive-branch tweet, he had rendered “decades” as “decade” and “heal” as “heel.” The misspellings were up for only minutes before he deleted and corrected his tweets, but he was roundly mocked on Twitter.
While the rest of us were ridiculing the president for his bad spelling, Manjoo wanted us to chill out.
To which I say this: Lett Trrump bee.
There are lots of reasons to criticize Mr. Trump’s policies, conduct and statements, especially his tweets. But we should lay off his spelling.
He goes on from there to give us all a pass on spelling, word choice, all the stuff with which we struggle to distinguish ourselves from uneducated ignoramuses. But he doesn’t stop with Trump, and says we should all stop being spelling and grammar pedants when it comes to social media.
Being the king of typos, both here and on twitter, I can appreciate his point. It’s quick and dirty, and mistakes happen. And, for crying out loud, it’s not a brief, or even a love note to a judge. Those get severely vetted for typos. This blawg? Have you ever read it before my editor cleans up my trainwreck?
But at National Review, Philip DeVoe rips Manjoo a new one.
Farhad Manjoo urged Twitter users to let up on President Trump’s poor spelling in tweets, arguing that caring about spelling or grammar is “elitist,” and that linguistic propriety was unnecessary on Twitter because the platform’s brevity and immediacy make mistakes inevitable. There are a number of problems with this argument, but the most concerning is its subtle endorsement of the woefully misguided idea that the insistence on proper English is oppressive.
Twitter isn’t a doctoral thesis, so is it fair to turn Manjoo’s social media stance into a general endorsement of misspelling, poor grammar, Trumpian word choice? Somewhat, as poor writing skills are a huge communications problem. Once they’re given a pass on one medium, there is a strong chance they will filter through to others, to everything. Manjoo argues this isn’t a problem because academics say so. DeVoe says “meh.”
Manjoo arrived at the conclusion that spelling is not important after studying intelligence, interviewing an Oxford University professor, and discovering what he calls “a rich history of political misspelling.” He claims to have observed “shifting cultural attitudes” that relieve English speakers of the burden of following the rules of their language. But no matter how many Oxford professors, presidents, or intelligence studies Manjoo cites, “covfefe” still isn’t a word. Inherent in language — and especially spelling — is the need for standards.
Are rules of writing, spelling, grammar, no longer necessary in the age of spellcheck and twitter? Will people be able to distinguish between times and places where they need to get it right from those where informality, and hence sloppiness, are fine? If they can get away with poor writing most of the time, will it not ultimately be the norm in all writing?
While Manjoo’s point is well taken on social media, where you shouldn’t get points off for spelling, DeVoe’s point is similarly serious. That “covfefe” still isn’t a word doesn’t address the problem of people who interchangeably use “your” and “you’re,” Make a mistake? Fine, as long as you realize that you’ve made a mistake and, more importantly, care that you were wrong.
That seems to be the line that distinguishes the two sides, whether a writer cares that he’s misspelled a word. I cringe every time I see a typo in a twit, which is pretty much every time I twit. And while I’m cavalier with typos here, it’s only because I know someone will come along to clean up my mess. It may not look this way, but I care very much. I just can’t bear to read my own posts such that I can clean up my own mess.
If people can distinguish between the informality of social media and formal writing, care that they still need to know how to write well, properly, because their future success depends to some extent on how they present themselves in writing to others who will judge them, then it’s okay. It may not be optimal, but it won’t be the end of thought.
And if we end up writing poorly, sloppily, because social media writing (or spellcheck reliance) has left us satisfied with whatever we produce, no matter how bad, then we will lose the capacity to communicate and, as DeVoe notes, it will impact the “oppressed” more than others. The Elites will be trained to write well, even if the substance is crap, but the inability to write intelligibly will taint the poorly educated and impair their ability to improve their lot in life.
Maybe they’ll have a ton of twitter followers with their cute, if misspelled, twits, but until people get paid based on the number of followers, it remains necessary to possess the skills to function and succeed in real life. The ability to write properly still matters. Don’t lose it.