When Marjorie Taylor Greene trashed a fellow Republican on Twitter this week, the exchange raised serious questions about abortion, Islamophobia and eroding civility in Congress. But it also left many in Washington fired up about something else — basic grammar.
“@NancyMace is the trash in the GOP Conference. Never attacked by Democrats or RINO’s (same thing) because she is not conservative, she’s pro-abort. Mace you can back up off of @laurenboebert or just go hang with your real gal pals, the Jihad Squad,” tweeted Greene of Georgia, using an offensive term as she compared her colleague from South Carolina to a group of progressive lawmakers. Then came a taunt with a mistake: “Your out of your league.”
Thirty minutes later, Nancy Mace hit back with a simple “*you’re.”
If brevity is the soul of wit, it’s also the brass knuckles of one-upmanship on Twitter. As Greene doubled down on her error (“So trashy not worth a spelling correction”), other members of Congress joined in the spell-checking, including Republican Adam Kinzinger and Democrats Jamie Raskin and Eric Swalwell.
“I would say this feels like high school. But high schoolers know how to spell ‘you’re,’” Swalwell tweeted Tuesday.
The episode continues a longer trend of political red-penning that hit its heights during Donald Trump’s presidency. Along with Democrats, Republicans like Kinzinger and Mace, who want the party to return to the principles and eloquence of Ronald “The Great Communicator” Reagan, have long bemoaned Trump’s typo-filled tirades. But his pugilistic style, misspellings and all, is kept alive in Washington by Greene and other supporters.
Rep. Madeleine Dean taught English for 10 years at La Salle University before coming to Congress. She pointed to a common mistake by Republicans that she said is like nails on a chalkboard: using “Democrat” and “Democratic” interchangeably. “That is meant as a slight, but what it really reveals is ignorance within the speaker. The speaker can’t decipher which is the adjective modifying a noun and which is actually the noun,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said.
Dean described Greene as a “conflict entrepreneur” who seeks negative attention, borrowing a term from author and journalist Amanda Ripley. “You see that reflected in the behavior and the language — and the behavior on the floor — by some of these far-right-flank, nonserious members of Congress,” she said.
Politicians of all stripes have used opponents’ solecisms to question their intelligence since time immemorial. But it started to take on a more partisan tint around 2000 as George W. Bush campaigned for the White House. Democrats repeatedly pointed to Bush’s penchant for malapropisms as evidence that he was an idiot. Despite utterances like “Is our children learning?” Bush won the presidency, twice.
The grammar gap widened again eight years later as Trump rose to power. The proofreading software company Grammarly came out with a study in 2015 suggesting that out of 19 Republicans and Democrats running for president, Trump’s supporters had the worst grammar. A few years later, the Boston Globe ran a story saying Trump’s aides purposefully added typos to his ghostwritten tweets to match his populist, stream-of-consciousness style. Through it all, Trump’s detractors mocked and lamented his cavalier approach to spelling and unconventional syntax.
Mace’s grammar scolding was a hit, receiving more than 8,000 likes and 800 retweets, and undoubtedly felt satisfying to deliver. But it’s unclear how much good it did her in this intraparty quarrel, which began after Mace castigated Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert for Islamophobic remarks about Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of three Muslim members of the House. While there is some evidence that error-riddled writing diminishes voters’ opinion of a politician, nitpicking their punctuation has its drawbacks.
A 2016 study by linguists at the University of Michigan found that college students were less willing to be roommates with a stranger whose introductory email was filled with grammatical errors, which the researchers call “grammos.” “When people are calling out Greene for her mistake, they may be thinking that her grammo is evidence that she’s not fit for Congress, or that she has bad judgment, or any number of negative things,” Julie Boland, one of the researchers, said in an interview this week.
Other studies suggest that sloppy writing makes investors less likely to offer microloans, employers less likely to hire, and online daters less likely to swipe right. It stands to reason that voters would act similarly.
Raskin said the same attacks against the Constitution and the rule of law that Democrats warned escalated under Trump can be seen “taking place against any rule structure, whether it’s basic manners and civility or the rules of grammar.”
“People in public life who are consistently sloppy and chaotic in their thinking, in their speech, will come to lose favor with the population,” the Maryland Democrat said in a Wednesday interview. “I do believe that. I certainly hope it’s true.”
But there’s a reason why unwanted editors are called “grammar Nazis,” said Dennis Baron, a linguistics professor at the University of Illinois.
“Everyone wants to be correct; no one wants to be corrected,” said Baron, who is writing a book on grammar policing.
It’s ironic that so many Democrats are browbeating Republicans over their grammar, Baron said, noting that it’s traditionally been conservatives who lament how English changes. Concerns over proper language have long reflected class divides, from Eliza Doolittle’s elocution lessons in “Pygmalion” to Barack Obama’s code-switching. Some descriptivist linguists have argued that criticisms of “bad” grammar found in dialects like African-American Vernacular English perpetuate systemic racism.
It’s also a distraction. “What you really want to criticize politicians for isn’t their grammar, but the content of what they say,” said Baron. “It’s fine to attack Marjorie Taylor Greene for racism, but apostrophes? It’s a waste of time.”
Baron notes that there’s no real connection between intelligence and superior spelling or syntax. “I remember my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Bonger, telling us ‘sloppy grammar means sloppy thinking,’” he said. “No, it doesn’t. The correlation just isn’t there.”
Mace may find that comforting. Toward the end of Tuesday’s hourslong fight, after Greene said she had spoken to Trump about the ordeal, Mace compared her to a schoolgirl running to the “principle’s office to tattletale because she can’t stand on her own two feet.” But she was hoisted by her own homophonous petard.
Mace wrote “principle,” Nick Dyer, Greene’s spokesperson, said in an email. “Not principal.”