Does it matter that Trump can’t spell?

President Trump tweets lots of spelling errors. In the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo says this is just a sign of the times. It’s fine to spell things however you want on social media your friends, but when you’re communicating with people who matter — like, say, the entire citizenry of the United States — poor spelling tells people that you don’t care about rules, correctness, or precision, and you don’t know enough to get help.

Here are some of Trump’s tweets with spelling errors, plus his corrections:

Farhad Manjoo defends poor spelling on Twitter

In the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo analyzed the president’s spelling in an article called “So Trump Makes Spelling Errors. In the Twitter Age, Whoo Doesn’t?” (I’m sure the Times’ copy editors found that article delightful.) Here’s how he justifies his opinion that spelling doesn’t matter for the president.

Lett Trrump bee.

There are lots of reasons to criticize Mr. Trump’s policies, conduct and statements, especially his tweets. But we should lay off his spelling.

Actually, we should lay off everyone’s spelling. In a digital age of autocorrect and electronic publications that can be edited from afar, not to mention social media platforms that prize authenticity and immediacy over polish, misspelling has become a mostly forgivable mistake. You simply do not need to be able to spell as well as people once had to, because we now have tools that can catch and correct our errors — so it’s just not a big deal if, on your first draft, you write “heel” instead of “heal.” . . .

Here are three reasons you should not worry about Mr. Trump’s spelling — or anyone’s, really.

  • If you don’t misspell on Twitter, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Criticizing spelling is elitist.
  • Focusing on spelling blinds us to content.

Is Trump’s poor spelling on Twitter defensible?

A Trump supporter probably wouldn’t choose these arguments. Instead, I think the argument would run something like this:

Trump says exactly what is on his mind, which is admirable in a politician. He has no blind allegiance to other people’s rules that get in the way of that. So he spells some things wrong. I’d rather hear what he has to say. Focus on that, not spelling errors that don’t matter.

I’m not buying it. Imagine for a moment that Trump was, not the President of the United States, but a senior executive in a large corporation, a governor, or any other leader in a position of authority. If he tweeted like this, would it be a problem? What would it say about that leader?

What the misspellings actually say about a leader is this:

  • The leader does not know how to use English properly.
  • The leader does not care to get someone to help him get these things correct.
  • The leader prioritizes the urgency of putting his thoughts out on the Internet over the time it would take to get those thoughts correct.

There’s a reason that leaders don’t generally post tweets full of errors. It tells their subordinates, their colleagues, their partners, and their competitors that they are sloppy. If you follow a leader like this, the message is: “Urgency is more important than correctness.” If everyone in the organization behaves like this, you have no discipline, you have chaos. That’s why leaders continue to follow rules — to create a culture of respect for rules within their organization. You may think it’s a stretch to go from spelling rules to rules on insider trading or rules made by Congress. I don’t. A leader in an organization who communicates that rules are unimportant creates a culture that breaks rules to get things done. Ask people who work at Uber.

Here are my counterarguments to Farhad Manjoo:

  • If you don’t misspell on Twitter, you’re doing it wrong? Perhaps, if you’re an ordinary person. If you’re the President of the United States, your Twitter is an official communication. The rules are different for the President or anyone else in authority. We hold you to a higher standard.
  • Criticizing spelling is elitist? Nope. Spelling, grammar, and all the other rules of clear communication make the difference in who succeeds. If you can’t spell, get somebody to check your work, or be prepared to suffer for your mistakes. Elitist or not, people who use words properly get ahead. You can whine that you spell badly just like the president, but it won’t help you get that promotion or win over that customer.
  • Focusing on spelling blinds us to content? This is just silly. Any intelligent person is capable of criticizing style and substance separately. If a well-dressed person with perfect spelling does something awful, we don’t let them get away with it. And if somebody with terrible spelling does the noble thing, we see that, too. If Trump was the leader that Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama was, but with terrible spelling, he’d get a lot more respect. “He’s a bad speller” is certainly not at the top of the list of problems that Trump critics have.

What this means for you

The higher you get in business, the more attention people pay to the way you communicate. If you lead, or aspire to lead one day, learn to be clear, direct, and accurate. And if you know you have problems, get somebody to edit what you write and tell you where you’ve made mistakes. If you want to make a positive impression on Twitter, spell-check your tweets.

If Trump fails, it won’t be because of his spelling. But he’s a terrible role model. Don’t do what he does; it won’t work for you.

5 responses to “Does it matter that Trump can’t spell?

    1. I think “can’t spell” here means “can’t spell correctly, consistently.” When you misspell words like “tap” and “heal” and make up words like “unpresidented” and “covfefe” you have a pretty serious spelling problem.

  1. “Heel” – as in “follow obediently”? Will we heel (obey, follow our leader/owner)? Does Trump’s misspelling unconsciously communicate his wish for blind obedience by the citizenry? Or does he want to crush us under his….heels?

    “Unpresidented” – as in “without a president”? Hmmm, did China steal the US drone when our country obviously was un-president-ed, without a real president?

    Curiass minds want a (wanna, want to) no (know)…..now.

  2. I don’t understand why a technology columnist from the NYT thinks correct spelling and grammar are unimportant. If this technology columnist–who is probably considered an expert–can’t communicate effectively–with no typos and proper grammar, then he can’t convey his ideas and opinions. Columnists are notorious for being long on opinions but short on the mechanics of writing…I call BS.

  3. I just don’t get it, that somebody does not consider it significant that a public (or non-public) figure uses correct spelling and grammar. The good thing for the public is, that Trump is himself when he writes, so everybody knows instantly what type of a person he is: not caring about law, order, correctness, or other people. For this reason we are able (and lucky) to know WHO he (really) is and how he will act and react in certain situations. If he suddenly would spell correctly and use correct grammar, we would know that we had a FAKE Trump in front of us.

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