The Corner

Culture

Manners, Morals, and Trump’s Twitter Typos

President Donald Trump speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., January 14, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/REUTERS)

In criticizing the ragged nature of President Trump’s written communications, John McWhorter at The Atlantic cites as an example a spelling that the president or someone on the White House staff got right: “commonsense,” the adjective, in the phrase “commonsense legislation.” The noun is “common sense.” When it modifies other nouns, you can either hyphenate it (“common-sense legislation”) or, in Germanic style, close it up. In this case, the closed-up style, “commonsense,” is neater and (my impression is) preferred in American publications edited at some level above the Mendoza line.

McWhorter argues that Trump’s writing shows “inadequate thought” and “not just inadequate manners or polish.” I’ll pass over the part about inadequate thought. Why that minimizing “just” to modify “manners”? They have a moral dimension. One reason we’re careful with words is that they have tonic and toxic effects on the soul. We can bless, and we can curse.

Sometimes words cause unintended harm by slipping away from us, like a fastball from a pitcher with poor control. All of us have been on both sides of that. In the course of a spirited conversation, you hear coming out of your mouth a word or phrase that could have unfortunate associations for your interlocutor. They evaded your awareness in the nanosecond between the formation of the thought you wanted to express and your choice of words to express it, and now it’s too late.

The misspellings, wrong homonyms (“boarder security”), and unconventional capitalization that are signature features of Trump’s Twitter output and that show up now and then even under official White House letterhead are also offenses, though of a lower order, like that food stain on your tie — it’s a distraction. The energy that others spend feeling embarrassed for you is energy they won’t have available to devote to the business at hand. The better part of good manners is to be silent and invisible except to the extent that it’s helpful to others for you to be heard and seen. Churchgoers understand this, except the ones who don’t. Unless you sit in the back pew, you’re going to be in the line of vision of people trying to focus on the altar, so dress appropriately, which means unremarkably, and don’t fidget. And put the usual number of e’s in the word “immediately.”

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