Patriotic grammar scolds puh-lease

A recent article (blog post?) by Mary Wilson in Slate discusses the language used by the Russian trolls who were indicted for subverting the 2016 US presidential election. But perhaps unsurprisingly in an online article about grammar, the writer gets grammar totally wrong. Let’s take a look at the grammar “mistakes” that the writer points out.

One political ad placed online by the Russians apparently read, “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.” Just a Satan, not the? Is there a class of Satans of which Hillary was just one example? If so, why capitalize the S? [italics original]

1. “a Satan”. Fine, but Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. Sorry, I meant to write the Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. See how weird that sounds? That’s because proper nouns do not usually take any articles. In fact, adding the definite article is what would make this construction seem like there is a class of satans. Compare: That’s not the Satan I was referring to. Maybe that’s what Wilson was going for, but I doubt it.

In one email to a Trump campaign official, a disguised Russian agent reportedly wrote: “We gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected.” Is a huge lot a Walmart-size amount? Costco? Not to mention the awkwardly deployed somehow.

2. I agree huge lot is not a common construction, but what is grammatically wrong with it? Not to mention “the awkwardly deployed somehow” has nothing to do with grammar.

As noted in the Washington Post last year, “A revealing characteristic of the Russian language, the absence of the definite and indefinite article, is evident in statements such as ‘out of cemetery’ and ‘burqa is a security risk.’” But, the article goes on to say, these mistakes are harder to take notice of given how sloppily written the average social media discourse is.

3. This whole paragraph. A revealing characteristic of the Russian language is the Russian language. The sentence should read “a revealing characteristic of English mistakes made by people whose L1 does not have articles is the misuse of articles in English. Russian is one such language, but there are thousands more.” This one is also on the Washington Post. The next sentence describes social media discourse as “sloppily written”. This is a bunch of shit. Language written online isn’t supposed to follow standard English norms. That’s part of what makes it funner than standard written English. People know that they don’t have to follow the rules of standard English when they write online, so they don’t. But somehow – somehow! – they are still understood. Could it be that the rules of standard English aren’t as important to clarity and understanding as grammar scolds would have us believe?

The Mary Wilson tells us that these grammar “mistakes” imply “that we were wrong to ever let it become uncool to fixate on bad grammar and slack syntax, no matter what the venue”. If it’s uncool to fixate on bad grammar, that’s because many of the grammar scolds don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. They’ve commandeered the word grammar to mean “any stylistic feature that I internalized in high school, in either speech or writing, and have decided to apply system-wide across the language”. It’s a catch-all condemnation for people who want to point out their superiority. Don’t believe the hype.

Wilson ends the post by saying that paying attention to sentence fragments and dangling participles is “patriotic”. I wonder why she didn’t mention sentence fragments and dangling participles in her scolding of the Russian trolls. Is it because sentence fragments and dangling participles are not part of grammar? It is.


Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

3 thoughts on “Patriotic grammar scolds puh-lease”

  1. lol : )

    looking at the use of “Hillary is a Satan” we should note “a Satan” is a predicate nominal so a better analogue maybe would be “Is Hilary a Pope?”. In fact if we take “Satan” as a role that can only be filled in succession such as a pope then no article would be most common distribution.


    1. Yes, certainly. I mean, using either an indefinite or definite article makes it seem like there’s a class of satans, which is why I couldn’t figure out why “the” was suggested in the Slate article. Maybe an even better analogue would be “Is Hillary a demon?” or “Is Hillary a god?” since both “demon” and “god” often take the indefinite article, although “demon” probably more often than “god”. Maybe that’s where the confusion came with the original writer (the Russian troll, I mean) – “a demon”, “a god” are ok, but “*a Satan” is not. But wouldn’t “the X” be most common when X is a role that can only be filled in succession? For example, “the Pope”, “the Batman”, etc. Or did I misunderstand your comment?

      1. yes in subject or object position “the Pope” possibly most common, here we have a predicate nominal where for “Pope” no article is most common from BNC data, see The Myth of the Zero Article book

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