Media Fawn Over Teacher Who Incorrectly 'Corrected' Letter From Trump

May 29, 2018

Grammar Nazis suck. We all know this. Most Grammar Nazis are quarantined into editor positions where their evil can be best contained and used for good, but many exist in the wild. Most recently, 61-year-old retired teacher Yvonne Mason went viral and earned widespread media coverage for correcting a series of grammatical errors in a White House letter sent under Donald Trump's name, and promising to mail it back.

As bad as Grammar Nazis are, incompetent Grammar Nazis might be the worst people alive. It's bad enough to act like an annoying pedant, but doing it wrong ensures that the rest of us have to also become annoying pedants in order to correct your misinformation. Bad Grammar Nazis are the zombies of discourse, spreading their infection to the healthy.

Alas, Mason is a bad Grammar Nazi. And the media fell for it, hard.

The bulk of her complaints (eleven of the fifteen, by my count) are the White House's capitalization of words like "federal," "nation" and "president." "Federal is capitalized only when used as part of a proper noun," she complains, adding at the end "OMG this is WRONG!"

But as the New York Times noted in its story on the letter:

However, a style manual for the federal government calls for capitalizing "Nation" and "Federal" when the words are used as a synonym for the United States. It says "State" should be capitalized when it is referring to the government or legislature. In letters from Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush that constituents posted online, words like "Nation" and "President" are capitalized.

So right off the bat, we learn that the vast majority of "errors" in the Trump letter are not. And The New York Times discovered this fact and subsequently wrote up the story... why exactly?

Mason's other complaints range from petty to intentionally dense. "I also directed the Department of Justice to issue a rule banning devices, such as bump stocks, that turn legal guns into illegal machine guns," the White House writes in Trump's voice.

"? Explain ‘rule,’" demands Mason in the margins. Huh? They just explained it. It's a ban on bump stocks. What's not to get?

Mason also highlights phrases in which Trump uses phrases like "I brought together lawmakers," "I signed into law," and 'I also directed," without outlining what's incorrect about them. Excessive repetition or use of personal pronouns is usually discouraged, but it's sort of hard to avoid when you write a letter asking someone to list off their achievements. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a letter Obama sent in 2016:

In the meantime, I have directed my team to accelerate research on new vaccines and methods of detecting the disease. Additionally, I've formed a coalition of experts and Federal, State, and local leaders to combat the spread of Zika so that we can identify any outbreaks in the continental United States early and contain them. To make sure our public health officials have the resources needed to prepare and respond to Zika, I've asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency funding to support and advance these efforts as quickly as possible.

The only complaint where I agree with Mason is that she removes the first comma in this sentence: "I also brought together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle at the Federal and State levels, to discuss ways that we can protect the safety of all Americans, especially our Nation's children." The original sentence technically isn't ungrammatical, but I think it flows much better without the comma. I also realize that's a matter of style and opinion.

So taken all together, this is the story that the Times, CNN, Slate, New York Daily News, CBS News, The Hill, Newsweek, Yahoo News, and HuffPost all jumped at; the White House sent a letter with an unnecessary comma. And of all those outlets, the Times was the only outlet who noted that the capitalization was actually correct.

Let me suggest that if a bitter self-described Republican schoolteacher sent a letter to Barack Obama incorrectly listing off a bunch of "errors" that weren't actually errors, the mainstream media would treat it like the complete non-story it is. Even if the Facebook post went viral, the media would be covering it as an example of fake news spreading on social media, rather than credulously spreading the post without fact-checking it at all.

It was bizarre watching Mason appear on CNN, get introduced by the hosts as the teacher who "school[ed] President Trump," and then admit that of course Trump almost certainly didn't write the letter, and yes, she was perfectly aware that the federal style guide required the White House to use capitalization she claimed was wrong. Instead, she just insisted that the standard used by the federal government for decades was just wrong, darn it.

"Random capitalization sort of goes against the grammatical tragedy of the commons where if you just start randomly deciding which words are proper nouns and which aren't, then how do you really expect the general public to follow that?" she said. "And if you do it, then what if I'm in a classroom and I mark it wrong and then somebody shows me something-- it's just a matter of clear communication."

I think the notion that grammar rules can change in different contexts is pretty intuitive, actually. I was taught for example that in formal letters you end the salutation with a colon, but in informal ones you end it with a comma. I was taught you shouldn't use personal pronouns, contractions, or the imperative voice in academic writing, even though they're grammatical in other contexts. I was taught to avoid repetition and using the same opening phrase in most cases, but that in persuasive writing it can sometimes be an effective tool.

I suspect Mason understands this. There's a reason she writes on top of the letter, "Have y’all tried grammar & style check?", a construction that would horrify her if it appeared in her student's paper. Formal writing demands different rules than conversational writing, and letters on White House stationary demand very formal rules, the sort handed down by dudes in powdered wigs.

Honestly, I can't get too mad at the retired teacher here; it's okay for strangers to be wrong on the Internet. What isn't okay is that journalists elevated her errors without basic research because she "owned" a politician they don't like. That's not a standard Obama was held to, and Trump shouldn't be either.