An English Teacher's Incorrect Correction of a Trump Letter Illustrates His Critics' Reflexive Condescension
Let's argue about the president's policies instead of his "grammar & style."
A glance at Donald Trump's Twitter feed is enough to show that the president does not have a firm grasp of punctuation and tends to capitalize words arbitrarily. By comparison, the form letter that Yvonne Mason received from Trump, which presumably was written by a staffer on his behalf, is a model of care. Yet Mason, a retired English teacher in Atlanta, thought the letter was so riddled with errors that she marked it up, posted a photo of it on Facebook, and sent the "corrected" version back to the White House. I know about this incident only because The New York Times thought it was worth a story, as part of a continuing series on what a huge doofus the president is.
Don't get me wrong. The president is a huge doofus. But Mason's markup of his letter does not reinforce that point. In fact, none of Mason's corrections is correct, although there are at least two mistakes in the letter that she neglected to note. Mason's showy but erroneous pedantry illustrates the tendency of Trump's opponents to cast policy disagreements as questions of competence and to delight in everything that reflects badly on him, even when that thing is not, strictly speaking, true. These tendencies, which mirror Trump's own fondness for ad hominem attacks and recklessness with facts, alienate potential allies while confirming his supporters' conviction that he is sticking it to a supercilious elite that holds them in contempt.
Mason, a Democrat, had sent Trump a letter asking him to visit the families of the 17 people who were killed in the February 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. "I had written to them in anger, to tell you the truth," she told the Times. "I thought he owed it to these grieving families." The subtext here, of course, is that Mason wants more gun control than Trump is willing to support. When Mason got back the form letter, which cites various steps that Trump took after the Parkland massacre to "improve both school and community safety"—steps that Mason views as woefully inadequate—she transformed this policy dispute into a "grammar & style" lesson.
"Have ya'll tried grammar & style check?" she scrawled in the upper left corner of the letter. "Poor writing is not something I abide," she told the Times.
Almost all of Mason's corrections are complaints about capitalization. Specifically, the letter capitalizes the words federal, state, nation, and president even when they are not components of proper nouns. That is not A.P. style. That is not Reason style. That is not my style. But as the Times notes, it is White House style:
A style manual for the federal government calls for capitalizing "Nation" and "Federal" when the words are used as a synonym for the United States. It says "State" should be capitalized when it is referring to the government or legislature. In letters from Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush that constituents posted online, words like "Nation" and "President" are capitalized.
The staffer who wrote this form letter can hardly be faulted for following the federal government's style manual, even if you and I might not like the rules it contains. Nor did he do anything wrong by referring to the Justice Department's proposed ban on bump stocks as a "rule," a term that seems to have puzzled Mason. The letter's author can fairly be criticized for omitting the word criminal from the name of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and for writing this sentence:
As president, one of my top priorities is the safety of America's youth, who are the future leaders of our great Nation.
The misplaced modifier (which Mason mentioned to the Times but did not mark on the letter) suggests that the president is "one of my top priorities." Better: "One of my top priorities as president is the safety of America's youth, who are the future of our great Nation." Even better: Let's argue about the president's policies instead of his "grammar & style."