I have a new hero. Her name is Yvonne Mason and she’s a retired English teacher from Atlanta, Georgia. A few days ago, she received a letter from President Trump in response to a letter she wrote to him about the recent school shooting in Florida.
Most people would be happy to receive a letter from the president, even one as divisive as Trump. And so was she until she read it. Old habits die hard and it wasn’t long before she got out her old purple pen and a yellow highlighter, and started marking it as if it had been submitted by one of her pupils.
You may not be surprised to learn that Trump didn’t do very well. The letter was soon covered in yellow lines and purple scrawls. “Have y’all tried grammar style check?” she scribbled at the top.
Clearly, the White House hadn’t. Mason’s biggest gripe was the apparently random use of capital letters, one that plagues my life when I edit my clients’ writing.
After highlighting the incorrect capitalisation of ‘Federal’ (twice), ‘State’ (three times) and ‘President’ once, she could take no more by the time she reached the fourth ‘Nation’. “OMG this is WRONG!” she exclaimed.
In my experience, lawyers are the worst. Common examples include ‘Client’, ‘Lawyer’, ‘Business’ and ‘Judge’. As Mason would no doubt be at pains to point out, these are not proper nouns and should not have capitals.
You may think this is unnecessarily pedantic. After all, in the age of instant messaging and abbreviated social media posts, who cares?
Mason says that her constant message to her students was: “Language is the currency of power.” The words you choose and your mastery of the English language all convey something about you, whoever you are, president or janitor.
It’s a point the Washington Post picked up in an article in March about the endless small mistakes that have dogged Trump’s presidency. These, the newspaper says, “have become symbolic of the larger problems with Trump’s management style, in particular, his lack of attention to detail and the carelessness with which he makes policy decisions".
Mason sent the letter back to the White House with a link to https://plainlanguage.gov/, a US government website whose purpose is to “make it easier for the public to read, understand, and use government communications”.
President Trump may not agree but Mason’s message could not have been clearer. “If you can’t communicate what you want or what you need … you’re not going to get what you want,” Mason said. “Writing clearly and consistently gives you power.”