The Grammarian and the President

Αssociated press

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends his long time talks with journalists in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

When I return papers, my students ask if I opened my veins and just let my blood drip over their words. All they see is red. Many complain that I’m compulsive, I’m mean, I’m a *****. This semester, however, students are thanking me for correcting their grammar, stating that my feedback is helpful. That they are actually learning something. Go figure.

Teaching grammar is like watching paint dry, grass grow – pick a cliche. The trick is to make it real-world. Use examples from life, the way people actually speak and write, and show what is right and what is wrong. Conversations, TV and movie dialogue, lyrics, the President of the United States.

Donald trump has been a gold mine for stand-up comedians and English teachers. In two years and eight months as president, he has managed to damage our reputation around the world and mangle the English language in the process. The tweets are myriad, and so are the errors therein: spelling, punctuation, sentences, vocabulary, and some that are sui generis.

So it was with a special kind of joy that I read trump’s transcript of his perfect phone call, whatever that means, to Ukraine’s President Volodymr Zelensky. Zelensky fawns and trump gets in familiar zingers about Angela Merkel and Europe in general and brags about U.S. support, to which Zelensky agrees “1000%.”

“I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”

The $391 million in military aid to Ukraine had been approved before this phone call, but it had yet to be delivered. Nevertheless, trump’s response to Zelensky was, “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine.”

“The whole situation” to which he alludes is the debunked conspiracy theory that the DNC server that was hacked in 2016 and was never turned over to the FBI, is, somehow, in Ukraine. According to Tom Bossert, trump’s first Homeland Security director, “United States government reached its conclusion on attributing to Russia the DNC hack in 2016 before it even communicated it to the FBI, long before the FBI ever knocked on the door at the DNC. So a server inside the DNC was not relevant to our determination to the attribution.”

Several times during the exchange, trump touts the excellence of Rudy Giuliani, and states that he and Attorney General William Barr will call to discuss “he other thing. There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it…”

And there it is. The request from a president of the United States for a foreign power to investigate a political rival on the eve of another presidential election. Remember when trump looked into the camera and said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing”? Well, his request of Zelensky is eerily familiar. Just because it is brazenly scandalous does not make it any less impeachable. It is a violation of presidential power as inscribed in the Constitution, and his refusal to cooperate with the House and his blocking any subpoenas issued to his cronies is obstruction of justice.

The constitutional implications of the entire phone call notwithstanding, Republicans maintain that trump did not offer Zelensky a quid pro quo, information on Joe Biden in exchange for the military aid that he had apparently withheld. Now look at that lonely adverb, “though”, when trump asks for a favor before releasing the $391 million Zelensky had just alluded to. “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” What trump and his sycophants don’t recognize is that his quid pro quo is embedded in that single word. Synonyms for though include “be that as it may” and “even so”. Given the peculiarities of English syntax, these alternatives would have to appear at the beginning of the sentence. Hence, directly after Zelensky’s offer to buy more Javelins, trump responds, “Be that as it may, I would like you to do us a favor.” Or, if you prefer, “Even so, I would like you to do us a favor.”

Now, what does that sound like?