Trump fans aren’t spelling bee champions, but why do we care?

Grammarly is the worst. Seriously, it is. I don’t mean their silly little grammar and spelling checker thing. I’m sure that’s a perfectly adequate proofreading tool, doing its best to reinforce people’s deep-seated insecurities about writing every time they touch a keyboard. I mean the company itself is the worst. Especially the people involved with its ever-illuminating data analyses / desperate attempts at reminding people that their app exists.

Every so often, Grammarly puts out an amateurish research / marketing stunt hybrid, in which they explore the distribution of spelling and grammar mistakes across different sectors of society. For example, here they looked at which NFL team’s fans made the most spelling and grammar mistakes in internet comments. Important stuff.

Today, I came across Grammarly’s most recent contribution to the science of getting internet attention: ranking presidential candidates according to the number of spelling and grammar mistakes in their supporters’ Facebook comments. This latest research has rabid partisans among the Democratic base loudly proclaiming their superiority over their more orthographically challenged competitors, by passing around articles with headlines like “I are a Trump fan, are you to?

I am a progressive, socialist, liberal, whatever. Bernie Sanders is my favored candidate. I’ve long felt that he was one of the few politicians who gave voice to my particular brand of politics, focusing on the threat inequality poses to a just society. According to Grammarly, my fellow Sanders supporters and I get the bronze for most accurate typing. I suppose I could be gloating from atop the medal stand. But I’m not. And I won’t. And you shouldn’t either. And here’s why. (And, by the way, I’ll start sentences with and and but any time I please.)

Grammarly concocted this clickbait with the intention of cashing in on your classism. They’re relying, as Grammarly always does, on people to conflate conformity to alleged ‘standards’ of English grammar with intelligence, education, thoughtfulness, or individual worth. As I’ve discussed several other times on this blog (try this piece and then maybe this one), we make unsubstantiated assumptions about people when they use language in a way that, for whatever reason, doesn’t conform to some privileged definition of what is ‘correct’ in language. These prejudices are the nicotine behind Grammarly’s marketing plan. In this case, Grammarly is counting on us assuming that people who misspell words or use ‘nonstandard’ grammar are less educated, and thus less informed about the world, and thus less worthy of having their ideas taken seriously, especially when those ideas are about something as important as how to handle our collective economic and social affairs .

There are many reasons to question this neat, self-serving ‘logic’. This includes Grammarly counting some of the things users of ‘nonstandard’ varieties of English do as “black-and-white mistakes” when they are in fact governed by a perfectly valid set of grammatical rules that just don’t happen to fit Grammarly’s narrow-minded ideas of what is ‘correct’ (for example, ‘nonstandard’ systems of subject-verb agreement, like in “He run”). However, I’m not going to get into that today.

Instead, I want to take a different approach. Let’s acknowledge that there is probably a correlation between, on the one hand, writing that uses dictionary-approved spelling and ‘standard’ grammar, and, on the other hand, educational attainment. Notice that I said “educational attainment”, not “intelligence”. Huge difference. The knee-jerk explanation for this correlation is that it means that smart people learn things like correct spelling and economics, and they get diplomas to show that they know stuff.

However, if you have paid any attention at all to education in the United States, then you should know that access to both public and private educational institutions is influenced at every level, from preschool to graduate school, by the numbers in your family’s bank accounts. If you’re politically progressive, then this probably concerns you very much. It really should concern you regardless of your particular politics, but that’s an issue for another day. This inequality is, and absolutely should be, a major concern for Democratic candidates. Consider, for example, Hillary Clinton’s proposal for debt-free college tuition.

So if the writing on Donald Trump’s Facebook page makes Grammarly squeal with fiendish delight, it may be because some of those people are also the very people who lack access to quality education. If we assume that Trump’s supporters have received, on average, fewer years of education than other voters (an assumption supported by the evidence), and we also keep in mind the economic inequalities that plague people’s access to education, then by mocking their and others’ written grammar and spelling, we’re mocking their social class. Classism. Plain and simple.

And yes, you’re mocking it. (Or perhaps not you, but people, including a number of writers, are mocking it.) Your clever caricatures of Trump fans, like “Donald Trump supporters think your an idiot“, aren’t just reproductions of common but incredibly minor homophone errors. They’re an implicit question to the world: “if these buffoons can’t distinguish between your and you’re, what other basic concepts don’t they get?” And Grammarly wants you to mock it, because nothing gets the Facebook shares rolling in quite like appealing to our need to feel superior to other people and our desire to dismiss our political opponents as mouth-breathing Neanderthals. The whole reweetability of these numbers is in their ability to give us a laugh at the expense of other people, not that I’m opposing humor at others’ expense on principle. Trump himself has worked hard to earn your disdain; you really shouldn’t disappoint him. However, in this case, I think it contradicts our fundamental political goals.

Donald Trump is most certainly not the right candidate for people who have gotten the short end of the educational opportunity stick, especially if those people would prefer to live in a society that offers greater opportunities to themselves, their neighbors, and their posterity. What little we can possibly know about Trump’s politics suggests that he and the other Republican candidates are quite in favor of keeping inequality just like it is. However, if we’re looking to convince people with less access to education that our progressive educational policies are the right call, then we should probably make them feel like we have their interests in mind.

Step one: Stop with the classist sneering.

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Language and education, Language and politics, Language and social class, Prescriptivism and language prejudice
3 comments on “Trump fans aren’t spelling bee champions, but why do we care?
  1. Debra Snell says:

    I enjoyed this blog entry, Nic. Food for thought.

  2. junkbrain says:

    nice rant/social commentary/political commentary/psychological analysis. you make a good argument for anti-classism. the fight against ignorance is a good fight. thank you. however, i still find the grammar data interesting but then again i have good intentions.

  3. […] with Donald Trump topping the list, and Nic Subtirelu from Linguistic Pulse describes why it should not matter: “if we’re looking to convince people with less access to education that our progressive […]

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