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Probably, you do. Definitely, it was annoying to read. Almost as annoying to read as a recent The New York Times column “So Trump Makes Spelling Errors. In the Twitter Age, Whoo Doesn’t?” The column, by Farhad Manjoo, argues that people who dislike the president’s careless approach to language are uptight pedants. In this column, I argue that the idea the president’s language doesn’t matter is fatuous and alarming.
This is the first bolded point in Manjoo’s argument: “If you don’t misspell on Twitter, you’re doing it wrong.”
Manjoo emphasizes that Twitter is a casual medium for chatting online, which means that tweets aren’t held to the same standards as more formal writing. But the president of the United States does not use Twitter like most people. He has used Twitter to alert the nation to policy changes such as his decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military. His administration has instructed the public to view his tweets as “official statements by the president of the United States.” With that in mind, it is exceptionally important that Trump should tweet with consideration and attention to detail. Twitter is far from a casual outlet for Trump. Instead, it's the official pulpit of a world leader. He frequently chooses to relay his plans and opinions through Twitter rather than through a traditional press conference. Tweeting allows Trump to speak directly to his followers rather than wait for advisors to draft a more conventional missive or endure questions from the media. A typo could provoke an international incident. Deciding to use Twitter in this way without proofreading tweets is irresponsible; it does not deserve a pass.
“Criticizing spelling is elitist.”
The purpose of standardized spelling is to make writing as universally understandable as possible. Standardized language is a tool for developing a voice that other people can hear. While it’s unnecessary and mean-spirited to mock someone for a spelling error in casual online conversation, it’s necessary to hold people who convey important, official messages to a standard of clarity and care in their speech.
Only the most pedantic traditionalist would argue that language cannot evolve, that slang can never be brought into mainstream discussions, and that mistakes cannot be made. The mutability of the English language is beside the point. Trump’s frequent misspellings betray a gravely cavalier attitude. It’s not pedantic to want the leader of the country to make a baseline effort to communicate clearly, even on Twitter— especially when Twitter is his preferred method of communication. It’s a citizen’s impulse.
For normal Twitter users who are not the president of the United States, using slang and abbreviations and unconventional spelling is reasonable, and it can be a source of joy and creativity. One of the reasons I love Twitter is how weird it allows people to get with language. The late writer and actress Carrie Fisher was one of the most enjoyable people to follow because her tweets were remarkably odd. She used emoji as glyphs to make picture-puzzle sentences, like this:
〰♓️ ♑️ ✌ ️ ️⛎® 1️⃣9️⃣ ♈️ ®✌ ️✝️♓️ℹ️♑️⛽️ ℹ️ ℹ️♑️✝️ ♑️— Carrie Fisher (@carrieffisher) November 16, 2016
For the record, that says: “When you’re 19, everything is intense.”
Fisher was an entertainer and used Twitter as a creative outlet and a promotional tool. If she had somehow gotten elected president and declared her Twitter account a source of official statements, using this kind of language would go from cheeky to terrifying. Not because there’s anything wrong with composing weirdo tweets using emoji, but because official communications from the president of the United States should be precise, measured, and delivered with the intent to inform rather than to amuse.
“Focusing on spelling blinds us to content.”
No, it doesn’t. People do not suddenly lose their ability to comprehend the meaning of words just because they pay attention to which words are used.
Manjoo also argues that Trump’s sloppiness on Twitter is not only forgivable but appealing and gives him a more genuine vibe. “His misspellings clearly add a sheen of authenticity,” Manjoo writes. “They offer an unvarnished, unfiltered view of his mind, partly because we know that he is posting himself— which we can tell because of all the errors, like the time he misspelled ‘hereby’ as ‘hear by,’ and then deleted it and misspelled it again as ‘hearby,’ before finally getting it right on the third try.” Perhaps his constant typos do endear him to part of his base. That doesn’t mean they deserve inoculation against criticism. Is it really a good thing that we can tell a president is tweeting himself because his tweets look like they were dashed off in thoughtless haste? I think it’s a state of affairs that requires criticism, not apologia.
I don’t know why the paper of record decided to publish a piece arguing that precision of language is unimportant, but I’ll paraphrase Trump to be as clear as I can be about it: Sad!