Trump’s ‘Use’ of ‘Quotation Marks’

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American presidents have often been noteworthy writers.  Jefferson was an audacious native version of an 18th-century philosophe. Lincoln’s precise yet visionary style was the subject of a 2008 book by Fred Kaplan. Grant’s plainspoken memoirs were admired by Mark Twain, who, contrary to rumor, didn’t ghostwrite them. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, the first President Roosevelt published 33 books (damn him), and that’s counting the four-volume The Winning of the West as one book. JFK won the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage (though he apparently should have shared it, at least, with Ted Sorensen). Reagan’s diaries were simple and often eloquent. (On the day of the assassination attempt against him, he wrote, “Getting shot hurts.”) Obama’s Dreams From My Father is a great American autobiography.

But there has never been a president whose writing has been as in our face — from Day 1 — as Trump. That, of course, is due to his obsessive tweeting. Examining his style in this forum is not trivial or superficial. As Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon long ago remarked, “The style is the man himself.” A sensitive examination of someone’s verbal expression is a window into his or her mentality.

As I observed here some weeks back, the general tenor of Trump’s tweets displays his pettiness, irrationality, hypersensivity, vulgarity, vindictiveness, ignorance, and outsize self-regard. Lucy Ferriss has remarked on his propensity for typos and misspellings, which suggest someone who doesn’t read and neither takes any particular care with nor reflects on what comes out of his thumbs. He’s fond of ALL CAPS and exclamation points because they seem to imply that a strong argument has been made, even when it hasn’t.

I haven’t seen any mention of Trump’s use of quotation marks, which is robust. Consider these tweets, all sent out in January.

Wow, the ratings are in and Arnold Schwarzenegger got “swamped” (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT.

Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only “stupid” people, or fools, would think that it is bad!

I win an election easily, a great “movement” is verified, and crooked opponents try to belittle our victory with FAKE NEWS. A sorry state!

Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to “leak” into the public. One last shot at me.Are we living in Nazi Germany?

… with the massive cost reductions I have negotiated on military purchases and more, I believe the people are seeing “big stuff.”

If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!

There are principally three legitimate reasons to use quotation marks. One, to indicate words a person or people spoke or wrote, one time or habitually. Two, for a title, like “Some Enchanted Evening.” Three, to in some way cast doubt on the word or words within the quote mark. Trump actually carried this off on January 13, when he tweeted that the dossier supposedly showing Russians had damaging information on him was “Probably … released by ‘Intelligence’ even knowing there is no proof, and never will be.”

But in the examples above, something else is clearly going on. Trump actually wants to say his Apprentice swamped Schwarzenegger’s in the ratings, that the people who disapprove of his relationship with Putin are stupid, that he is the leader of a movement, and so on. The quotation marks show the struggles of someone ill at ease with setting down words and sentences. When a familiar word or phrase comes to the mind of these people, they’re not sure what to do with it; sometimes, they’re more comfortable picking it up with protective gloves.

The phenomenon has long been observed by fiction writers. The airhead socialite in Ring Lardner’s short story “I Can’t Breathe” confides to her diary, “anyway mother may as well get used to the idea because it is ‘No Foolin’ this time and we have got our plans all made and I am going to be married at home and go out to California and Hollywood on our honeymoon.” Ross Macdonald’s detective Lew Archer, in his excavation of the troubled pasts of the Southern California characters he investigates, often unearths letters like this one, in The Zebra-Striped Hearse, from a mother to her daughter:

I realy appresiate you asking me to stay (I’m a poet and dont know it!) but a girl has to stick with her “hubby” thru thick and thin — after all Bruce stuck with me. Maybe he is hard to get along with but he is a lot better than “no hubby at all.” Dont you honestly think hes cute? Besides some of the people we know think his pictures are real great and he will make a “killing” …

The quotation marks are as telling as the misspelled words.

There is, or was,  a wonderful enterprise called “The ‘Blog’ of ‘Unnecessary’ Quotation Marks.” It’s dormant now but between 2005 and 2015, its founder and proprietor, Bethany Keeley, regularly provided examples of the mind-boggling ways people used this method of punctuation. For example:



Many of my students reach for quotation marks when they realize they’ve written a cliché. Things like, “Later on at the party, things got ‘hot and heavy.’” Or, “The administration ‘rolled out the red carpet’ for the visiting dignitary.”

I tell them quotations marks don’t take the stink off overused, hackneyed language. If they want a word or phrase in their writing, then they need to own it, and be willing to use it naked.

But of course I understand their struggles. They’re 20-year-old undergraduates. But the president of the United States? My God. Somewhere Teddy Roosevelt is “rolling in his grave.”



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