President Donald Trump’s extremely active Twitter feed constantly presents us with profound questions about the nature of language. Why does he deploy so many exclamation points? Use strings of repetitive synonyms? End so many tweets with “Sad!”?
Not since Fifty Shades of Grey has the nation been forced to spend so much energy close-reading text composed with so little precision and care. Actually, that’s not fair: E.L. James’s repurposed vampire fan fiction was far more thoughtfully crafted than President Trump’s body of tweets.
Exhibit A: Trump’s typically baffling use of quotation marks. “What does he use quotation marks for?” reporters and linguists ask. “Does he just throw them in at random?”
Here are a few examples:
Analysis of Trump’s quotation marks has reached fever pitch since his oddly-punctuated tweetstorm claiming President Barack Obama tapped his phones at Trump Tower:
After these seemingly cavalier accusations were widely criticized as baseless, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Trump both argued that the quotation marks around “wire tapping” indicated that it was not meant to be taken literally. (But, presumably, it was meant to be taken seriously.)
What’s going on here? Theories proliferate:
1) He’s using scare quotes, indicating that he is not to be taken literally.
At first glance, this is essentially Spicer’s and Trump’s contention. Scare quotes allow writers to distance themselves from certain words, calling the word’s validity into question. “It’s part of a strategy Trump has of saying things he can deny later, and this is a perfect example,” Philip Seargeant, senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the Open University, told The Guardian earlier this month.
On the other hand, he frequently throws quotation marks around words he clearly means to fully endorse ― see his habit of calling his supporters “a ‘movement’” or tweeting that “the people are seeing ‘big stuff’” thanks to his election.
2) He’s using them for emphasis.
In an Atlantic article from last year, Megan Garber pointed out that the predecessor to the exclamation point, the Greek diple, was used to emphasize important words. Though other forms of emphasis now exist ― italics, all-caps type, or even underlining in handwritten contexts ― the impulse to use quotation marks for emphasis hasn’t died out. Trump appears to fall into this fairly common trap, tossing quotes around words he clearly means to sincerely mark as important. “The race for DNC Chairman was, of course, totally ‘rigged,’” he tweeted in February. The quotation marks appear around the key accusation of his post, not a word he appears to want to soft-pedal or distance himself from.
Then again, Trump notoriously resorts to all-caps or exclamation points for emphasis ― why would he need quotation marks to do the same job?
3) He’s created a new use, in which they indicate metonymy or synecdoche.
Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark argued recently that if Trump’s claim that he used “wires tapped” in quotation marks in order to indicate that he meant surveillance more generally is in good faith, this would constitute a nonstandard use of the punctuation to indicate two possible figures of speech: metonymy, “A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated,” or synecdoche, “A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).”
This example, however, doesn’t appear to make a lot of sense when applied to Trump’s other uses of quotation marks.
4) He’s purposefully destabilizing our understanding of meaning through using a punctuation that allows him to distance himself from the literal implications of his words while still using them.
Trump’s scare quotes, wrote Moises Velasquez-Manoff recently in The New York Times, function as “weaponized irony.” “He and Mr. Spicer are employing ironic techniques not comically but cynically — to destabilize meaning,” he argued. “In the president’s hands, air quotes are apparently a way to push an alternate reality — one that’s often defined after the fact.”
Whether intentional or not, obfuscation is an effect of Trump’s unorthodox punctuation, which has become clear thanks to Spicer’s tortured defense of the president tweeting, without any evidence, that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower: “The president used the word ‘wiretapped’ in quotes to mean broadly surveillance and other activities during that,” he claimed. Even if Trump initially threw the term into quotes to emphasize it, the use of the marks is so confusing that it can later be used to manipulate the very meaning of the tweet.
Is this all part of Trump’s masterful plan? His slapdash communication has caused him enough trouble governing that it seems unlikely that such cunning lies behind all of this.
5) He’s afraid of the written word.
Now we’re really getting somewhere! In February, English professor Ben Yagoda made a case in the Chronicle of Higher Education that passes the Occam’s razor benchmark: “The quotation marks show the struggles of someone ill at ease with setting down words and sentences,” he pointed out. “When a familiar word or phrase comes to the mind of these people, they’re not sure what to do with it; sometimes, they’re more comfortable picking it up with protective gloves.”
Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg concurred in a New Republic column recently. “Like scare quotes, they’re meant to immunize the writer from the taint of the word’s associations, but out of fear of sounding uneducated or common,” he wrote. “The effect is invariably the opposite.”
For example, Trump will often tweet something like, “For eight years Russia ‘ran over’ President Obama.” The quotation marks don’t indicate that he doesn’t really buy that Russia ran over Obama, as scare quotes would. In context, it’s clear that he very much believes that it did. Instead, his punctuation indicates that he has the sense he’s using a colloquialism or cliché.
Sometimes it’s fairly obvious where Trump has picked up the phrase or term he’s using. In a late January tweet, he threatens, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on [...] I will send in the Feds!” Here, Trump is quoting his own inauguration speech (reportedly written by chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior advisor Stephen Miller), which railed against the “American carnage” of gang-related crime. There’s no need to quote a single word from his own speech, but the choice suggests that he wouldn’t normally write down such a word and feels somewhat out of his element doing so.
Trump’s use of parentheses, which has been less analyzed, also speaks to his discomfort with the written word.
This incredible example includes both phenomena:
As with quotation marks, Trump sometimes uses parenthetical comments in a normal way ― to attribute sources, for example. More often, however, he seems to throw them in when he’s not sure if he’s adequately conveyed his point. Arnold Schwarzenegger was “swamped” in “The Apprentice” ratings compared to Trump, he tweets; but is that clear enough? Just to be safe, he tosses in “(or destroyed)” to make it indisputably obvious that he means Schwarzenegger’s performance was absolutely terrible compared to his.
The evidence is stacking up that the president’s bizarre Twitter habits mostly arise from his lack of familiarity with the written word. Given that he doesn’t read books, prefers brief and infrequent security briefing memos, and seemingly gets most of his information by watching cable TV, it’s hardly any wonder his Twitter missives are often typo-laden, oddly punctuated, and awkwardly constructed.
The unfortunate news: Trump’s quest to undermine meaning doesn’t need to be calculated to be effective.