Thoughts on an English Teacher’s Correction of Trump’s Letter

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When I taught at a Los Angles community college, I was the paid editor of our accreditation reports during my tenure. The first draft was cobbled together with the writings of fifty or so people, and my job was to create a consistency of voice and word choice. And grammar. After all, some people hold steadfast to the Oxford comma while others insist it is superfluous. I had to decide which was right for this publication.

One common inconsistency in the document was the use of capitalization. This is where I, with my Masters of Arts (capitalized as per AP Style) in English, got my real education on capitalization rules. One “rule” as I understood it was that only titles are capitalized, not positions or offices. And the accreditation report was about positions, certainly not the people who currently occupied those positions For example, “the senator” is not capitalized but “Senator Smith” is.

Many sentences were written as follows: “The Librarian is responsible for ordering books.” But according to the rule, it should have been “The librarian is responsible for ordering books.”

So I dutifully waded through the 200+ pages and changed all of the incorrect capitalization.

Then I was called into the proverbial principal’s office. The backlash regarding my capitalization corrections was fast and furious. The librarian was angry. Various department chairs were angry. And untold others were unhappy. They wanted their positions to be capitalized!

As best as I could tell, they felt that writing a sentence about their jobs using lower case letters was a judgement that they weren’t as important as if their jobs were capitalized. A Vice President seems so much more significant than a vice president, doesn’t it? This was not a battle I was interested in fighting. So I went back and re-capitalized all of the offices throughout the document. And everyone was happy.

From then on out, I told the story of this experience to my classes every semester.

At first, I joked about a world where capitalization decisions are controversial and where people actually argue, angrily, about capitalization. And then I followed with the most important lesson of this experience. Different English teachers and different publications will have different rules they want followed. Many areas of grammar are open to debate, especially if you believe that the teaching of English is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

My advice to students was first, to find out what a particular teacher/publication expects, second to follow that rule (is it really worth getting into an argument over whether or not to use an Oxford comma and perhaps not getting your article published?), and third to be diligently consistent.

The third point was my lesson. Make a decision. If you are an Oxford comma person, make sure you use it every single time you write items in a series. Similarly, if you are going to capitalize an office, such as President (in fact, when referring to the leader of the United States, many publications make an exception regarding the rule about titles), then be sure to capitalize it every time. Make it obvious that you made the decision; don’t come across as if you have no idea what you are doing by sometimes capitalizing and sometimes not.

Trump

Which brings me to the retired English teacher’s corrections of the letter Trump sent to her. Upon first glance, which is about all most people will give it, it looks bad. She marked it all up in purple pen. As soon as I saw the picture of the letter, I thought “Oh God. What the hell has he done now?” But then I took a closer look.

Almost all of the comments center on the use of capitalization. Not only is her opinion about what should or should not be capitalized exactly that, an opinion, but the White House style guide directs its writers to capitalize exactly the words that were capitalized. A quick look at past president’s (President’s?) correspondence reveals the same capitalization patterns. And in addition, the capitalization in Trump’s letter is consistent. It is not arbitrary and unconscious.

Another comment is about the use of the word “rule.” She may be right. I am not sure if that is the correct word or not – clearly the word should not be “law.” I’m unclear on her point. Also, five phrases have been highlighted in yellow. I’m not sure what her point is there either.

Then she includes the two interesting notes. One is “Have y’all tried grammar and style check?” Grammar check may have indicated that the capitalized letters were wrong. But if the style guide indicates those words must be capitalized, then the author would be correct in ignoring grammar check’s recommendations. I tell my students all the time that grammar check is a handy tool, but in my own writing, it is wrong more often than not; they should not be afraid to overrule it. She doesn’t appear to have any complaints about style, so I am not sure what style check would have revealed.

The second comment is “OMG this is WRONG!” referring to what she sees as a capitalization error. Never mind the problem with capitalizing every letter in WRONG. I have always been very careful to practice what I preach. So when I make comments on students’ papers, which I typically do in red pen, I do not use text speak or colloquialisms, such as “y’all.” I do not defy the very rules I expect them to follow. That seems hypocritical to me. And confusing.

Finally, she provides a government website that recommends writers use “plain language.” I visited the site (plainlanguage.gov), and I truly cannot believe our government passed a Plain Writing Act in 2010. I don’t even know what to say about that.

The website includes directives such as organize your information, choose words carefully, be concise, and keep it conversational (Aren’t people taught this in college? We need an act of government to explain this??). With the exception of the use of the word “rule,” the English teacher makes no complaint that the letter is not written in plan language. So her recommendation of the website makes no sense.

Did I break some grammar rules in writing this post? Yes, I did. I did so purposely with some and perhaps inadvertently with others. Writers do that. But these days, people are more concerned with nitpicking, ignoring nuance, and denying the use of figurative language.

I cannot even begin to tell you how many teachers like this I have come across in my career. It’s no wonder people can’t write. Or think. And don’t even want to any more.

Obama
Letter from President Obama showing the same capitalization pattern.

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