David Crisp: Grammar gurus give Democrats higher marks

The 2016 presidential election is still very much up in the air, but when it comes to grammar, Democrats have a commanding lead.

At least that’s the conclusion of a new study by Grammarly, an online grammar-checking website. Grammarly checked supportive comments on presidential candidates’ Facebook pages, and concluded that Republican supporters made twice as many errors as Democratic supporters.


David Crisp

In fact, the worst score for a Democrat—the 6.3 errors per hundred words made by Hillary Clinton supporters—exactly equaled the best score for a Republican, .

There isn’t space here to lay out all of the steps Grammarly said it took to get an accurate result. For example, it omitted comments that weren’t clearly positive to guard against lingering trolls (who, as is well known, have grammar skills only slightly above those of ogres). And it didn’t count errors about which reasonable grammarians might disagree, such as the use of the Oxford comma.

The results were striking. The best score, 3.1 errors per 100 words in Facebook comments, was for Democrat Lincoln Chafee, who has since left the race. But he had so few supporters that his numbers might have been skewed.

The worst score was by supporters of Donald Trump, who made 12.6 errors per 100 words. It didn’t take long to glean a sample:

♦ “Obama is a muslim, that’s why he only care about climate change.. Trump 2016!!!”

♦ “Hes an idiot! Trump for President!”

♦ “Obama and Hillary for prision”

♦ “Obamas a delusional Moron.”

And my personal favorite: “That’s why I and others created ‘Chepo Team’, the first true pro-America, libertarian comic strip.”

That comma floating outside the “Chepo Team” quotation marks isn’t American at all. It’s pure British.

As I sometimes tell composition students, our forefathers fought a long and bloody war to guarantee the right of all Americans, everywhere, to place commas and periods inside quotation marks. The assertion isn’t perfectly accurate, but it gets the point across.

So what’s going on here? To the extent that “Republican” equals “conservative,” one would expect the GOP to be a stalwart defender of English grammar. Complaints that standard English is just a way to repress lower economic classes usually come from liberals, not conservatives.

I inflict English grammar every semester on college freshmen who have done me no harm, and it isn’t clear to me that the grammatically challenged are any dumber or more conservative than their grammatical betters. The only clear difference is that students who read a lot tend to use better grammar than students who don’t—no doubt because grammar isn’t so much learned as absorbed.

Ben Carson, whose supporters weighed in at 6.6 on the Grammarly scale, was recently urged to read more by California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat and a wonk’s wonk. After Carson said that he had not seen “overwhelming evidence” that humans are causing the climate to change, Brown sent him a flash drive loaded with evidence and wrote, “Please use your considerable intelligence to review this material. Climate change is much bigger than partisan politics.”

In Trump’s case, his supporters’ grammatical deficiencies might in part be explained by surveys that show he has twice as much support from non-college voters than from college graduates. I’m not saying college graduates are smarter than non-grads, nor am I saying that they pick better presidential candidates. But if they haven’t learned at least something about grammar, then college English departments all across the country are falling down on the job.

Or it is possible that some of these Republican candidates aren’t really conservative at all. As David Brooks recently put it, “By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible.”

Doesn’t sound much like Donald Trump, does it? He sounds most like a conservative when he talks about immigration, but he really isn’t. Arguing that the United States needs to secure its borders and control immigration is conservative. Arguing that we can round up and deport 11 million people, build a wall to keep them from coming back and then somehow force Mexico to pay for it isn’t conservative; it’s wacky.

And so down the line. Even Fiorina’s supporters have trouble defending her top qualification, which is her record as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

Ted Cruz sounds like he would rather blow up the government than run it. Rick Santorum (second-worst in the grammar ratings) sounds more like a theocrat than a Republican. Lindsey Graham just wants to have a war, and he doesn’t much seem to care against whom.

Republicans could easily counter with their own list of horribles: Clinton is a liar, Sanders is a socialist, O’Malley is a pipsqueak, and so on.

Fine. Have at ’em. Just try to spell the words right.

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.

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