I love being an editor. I’ve been one for eighteen years, during which time I’ve learned more than I ever imagined I would when I started working in publishing. Among these many lessons is the importance of knowing when to keep my corrective instincts in check. People don’t like feeling as if they’re being judged every time they speak. So, most of the time, because I know I wouldn’t have a single friend left if I dropped the hammer whenever someone used “lay” instead of “lie” or “your” instead of “you’re,” I make a point of trying to listen holistically to what people say, rather than dissecting their every sentence. I remind myself that language is an ever-evolving thing, and that as long as people are expressing themselves somehow, then who am I to tell them to do it a different way?
But then the 2016 election happened, and now I can’t keep quiet anymore.
I voted for Hillary Clinton. I’m devastated that she lost the presidential race to Donald Trump, a man who disturbs me so profoundly that I lack the words to express the depth of my opposition to him. But I’m not here to unleash a political rant or to make predictions about what the president-elect will do once he’s inaugurated. I’m here because, as someone who has devoted her entire career to helping people identify, cultivate, and use their voices, I’m terrified about the havoc Trump is wreaking on the English language, and what that will look like for the American public.
You already know that you have the right to vote for whomever you want. However, if you place any kind of premium on self-articulation, or the power of the written word, or journalistic integrity, then set aside your party affiliations and your views on the other hot buttons dividing Americans right now and consider this: Whenever Trump takes to Twitter or the podium to express himself, he bungles his words beyond repair and in turn implies to millions of people that it’s okay to do so—because this election has proven that even if you have only a fifth-grader’s command of your native tongue by the time you’re seventy years old, you can still be POTUS. In a population that’s already grossly underserved in this regard, as evidenced by the fact that some thirty-two million adults in the United States are illiterate, the last thing we need is a president who has the potential, through his own bad example and all the airtime he gets, to do even more quantifiable damage in this realm.
You can have a hand in rectifying this situation. Whenever you read a social media post or hear a speech from Trump, try channeling your own internal editor, instead of accepting at face value—or, worse, duplicating—the many egregious errors he makes, including the following (emphases mine):
- July 24, 2016: Trump tweeted, “Looks to me like the Bernie people will fight. If not, there blood, sweat and tears was a total waist of time.”
- August 1, 2016: He complained to Fox News host Sean Hannity, “The New York Times . . . will never write good.”
- September 26, 2016: During the first presidential debate, he barked at Clinton, “You was totally out of control!”
- In the same debate, he stated, “I’m going to cut taxes bigly. And you’re going to raise taxes bigly.” (Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper can get as semantic as she wants in insisting that “bigly” is a real word, but repurposing “big” as an adverb will never not seem ridiculous to me and to all the other people who questioned it from the get-go.)
My upset about this isn’t some eye-rolling, elitist attempt to distance myself from Donald Trump just because I know better than to make these kinds of mistakes. It relates much less to my being an editorial control freak than it does to my concern about the possibility for this to become a systemic issue. Although I realize that Trump’s verbal inadequacy is not as monumental a subject as what policies he’ll enact in office, the trickle-down impact of world leaders is massive, and in my corner of the workforce, it’s downright depressing that a lot more people are going to be using the phrase “waist of time” before too long—because if the president spells it that way, it must be right, right?
All this is to say that I’m not going to give up editing anytime in the next four years. If I can help even one author say something not just correctly but eloquently, I’ll feel like I’m playing a small part in enabling people to hold themselves to a higher standard than the standard to which Donald Trump holds himself. And doing my job won’t make his garbled speeches any easier for me to follow, but it will send more good writing out into the world to counteract all the nails-on-a-chalkboard stuff he blurts out.
In the last decade or so, the advent of self-publishing and hybrid publishing has given writers unprecedented access to tools that allow them to share their stories. I support this trend. But now more than ever, the opportunity to formally manifest a piece of your creative mind is an honor and a grave responsibility. Talk is cheap, but a published work is forever, so please, take it seriously. Whatever you set out to write, ask yourself, “What would Donald Trump do?” and then do the opposite: make it beautiful.