Trump's Twitter goofs are one thing, but the repeated errors by his White House should concern us.
Photo of Donald Trump by Win McNamee/Getty
Unpresidented. Consensual presidency. Covfefe. President Donald Trump makes so many glaring typos on Twitter that it’s part of his political brand. People compile lists, pick favorites, and and roll their eyes—Trump’s keyboard errors, like George W. Bush’s malapropisms, are low-stakes enough that, even as we obsess over them, we can just laugh them off. But these sorts of mistakes aren’t limited to just Trump. His White House and wider administration make an unprecedented (unpresidented?) number of typos, grammos, and other errors, ranging from misspelling the names of officials and foreign dignitaries to repeatedly using the term "attaker."
Both Trump’s personal errors and the administration’s bloopers are subject to similar types and levels of glee or derision by critics. But while we can safely shrug at Trump’s thumb slip-ups, the other errors have the potential to be far more troubling.
As the English language and spelling historian Simon Horobin pointed out to me, although they have long been used as proxies for intellect, personal spelling and grammar errors almost never truly matter. They rarely affect our ability to discern meaning. English spelling especially, Horobin noted, is utterly illogical. So using it “correctly” is more a sign of memorization skills than anything else. Especially in the digital era, where so much of communication is rapid and informal, such errors are rarely taken to be meaningful. So when Trump boffs something on Twitter, that may amuse some observers, but it can’t tell us, in isolation, anything about the him. “In general, my view is that we should not take spelling mistakes too seriously,” stressed Horobin.
“Our reactions tell us more about the reader than the writer who produced the error,” added Julie Boland, who studies how people process language, especially others’ linguistic snafus.
However institutional errors cannot be dismissed as easily. Rightly or wrongly, Horobin notes, spelling and grammar errors are often associated with fraudulent or fly-by-night operations. As such, most institutions make it a point to stay on top of the language in their official texts, often putting multiple sets of eyes on them. When those oversight systems begin to fail, for whatever reason, the resultant errors potentially carry more weight or significance.
Individuals with experience in White House communications or document drafting operations in recent administrations point out that the federal government has developed strong systems and norms for vetting everything it produces. That doesn’t mean the system has ever been perfect—no matter how many rounds of fact- and copy-checking may exist, errors always slip through from time to time. The Obama administration misspelled “Feburary” and Ronald Reagan’s name in a few official documents, for example. But in the past these systems have ensured that far fewer errors show up in official documents than we’ve seen in the Trump era. “It is surprising,” admitted Horobin, “that more care isn’t taken to ensure a higher standard of accuracy in formal documents coming out of the White House.”
No one I’ve spoken to knows exactly why or how the conventions checks in this administration seem to fail so often. Horobin notes that most of the errors “suggest too much reliance upon spellcheck,” which only recognizes non-words and turns them into real words. This would explain statements about the Trump administration pursuing “the possibility of peach” in the Middle East, or common misspellings of individuals’ names. Spellcheck reliance could stem from several root causes—relaxed vetting policies, for example—that may lead to “unprofessional” results, but not point to serious concerns about the administration overall.
However, many official texts also include errors that even spellcheck should catch. Sometimes officials appear to be “spelling words as they sound,” said Horobin, like “honered, rediculous, or unpresidented.” Other times, it seems like someone was just typing carelessly, like when president became “predisent” or energy became “enety.” The same applies to instances when the administration uses the wrong title for someone, usually a head of state. Some documents make both types of errors—with alarming frequency. When the administration tried to issue a list of terrorist attacks it believed had received little media attention, for example, it used the term “attaker” almost two dozen times, as well as spellings such as “San Bernadino” and “Denmakr.”
This too could come down to staffing issues or looser vetting policies. But it could also, as Boland pointed out, suggest these documents were produced in a rush, so much so that they bypassed vetting systems or were subjected to cursory and inexperienced vetting at best.
Boland believes that even errors made in haste by the administration are still often overblown. The final results are still almost always legible and unambiguous. But this rush and sloppiness does have an effect on how seriously elements of the public takes this administration, which officials seem to realize—they do often catch errors after the fact and correct them quietly. And it raises legitimate questions about how carefully official statements, or even executive orders and presidential memoranda, were thought through before being released into the world.
“The number and nature of the errors found in the White House documents suggests a lack of due diligence and concern that undermines the credibility of the message and the office from which it originates,” said Horobin. “If you are unsure about the spelling of a word, or the name of a head of state, all you have to do is look it up. Getting it wrong suggests a poor grasp of detail, and a worrying unwillingness to invest in insuring details are accurate.”
“A lack of concern for detail,” he added, “often points to a poor grasp of the larger picture.”
In rare instances, this inattention to detail can have serious, practical implications. Boland and Horobin both note that linguistic ambiguities or grammatical goofs can, when parsed by legalistic minds, complicate the implementation of an order, or open opportunities to use it in a way the authors may not have intended. Errors can also cause friction with individuals, groups, or even other nations as well. We’ve seen examples of this, whether in boneheaded references to the “President of Palestine” (rather than the “President of the Palestinian Authority” that America actually recognizes) or in the tortured efforts to implement some of Trump’s confusing, clearly rushed early executive orders, especially those concerning immigration systems.
All of which is to say that when Trump writes a stupid tweet, well, who really cares? But when the wider administration puts out documents that make boneheaded errors, we should be placing them in a separate category and calling them out clearly and often. They may not matter often in a practical sense, but they are legitimately worrying.
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