In the 1979 movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a Roman centurion (John Cleese) scolds insurrectionist Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) for the anti-Roman graffiti he just painted on a wall, not for its message (Romans go home!) but for its appalling Latin grammar. Once Brian gets the Latin right, compliments of the centurion’s pedantic corrections, he’s ordered to write the slogan a hundred times on that same wall. Of course the centurion’s emphasis on the minor issue (grammar) at the expense of the major issue (the seditious message) is the whole joke.
I have no formal statistical evidence to support this assertion, but can we all nevertheless take it as read that poor grammar – or what we usually mean by that in most online debates, i.e., poor spelling, poor punctuation, improper usage, confused homophones, (e.g., “your” versus “you’re”), excessive use of the CAPS LOCK key and so on – is overrepresented among Trump supporters? And as long as I’m being recklessly anecdotal, is it just me or do 97% of the world’s “Grammar Nazi”-disparaging memes come to us compliments of the Alt Right?
Were that all we had, that Trump supporters are a bit syntactically challenged, I might agree we are being a tad petty when harping upon it, and likewise admit that when we bring such to their attention we might just be excessively, er, centurion-esque. But that’s putting the past participle before the infinitive. The desire to change the rules by eliminating all references to correct grammar is, of course, usually the go-to strategy of the grammatically challenged anyway.
But more than that I, for one, refuse to be lectured on the science of global warming, the efficacy of trickle-down economics or the intricacies of effective immigration strategy by someone who doesn’t understand the difference between “there,” “their” and “they’re.” Call us “grammar Nazis” if you must, but for all of that, it seems reasonable that those who hold themselves politically superior on the larger topics ought to be competent to demonstrate ability in the smaller ones, and get their spelling and punctuation right, not at the expense of the major issues but at the very least on the road to their defense of them. In other words, before insisting that English become the official language in America, they just might try learning it first.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.