When Syntax Attacks: Trump Accidentally Endorses Congressional and D.O.J. Russia Inquiries

Syntax is broader than grammar or style; it involves the placement of words in such a way as to express unambiguous ideas — preferably whatever ideas the writer or speaker intends to express.

Careful attention to syntax is an even better gauge of mental acuity than good grammar; whereas the proper use of grammar involves the mechanical application of rigid strictures, artful syntax involves much more — an awareness of the structure of thought and consideration of the countless variables that factor into manifesting that structure with clarity and precision. While bad grammar signifies a kind of technical incompetence, bad syntax signifies a sloppy mind.

Donald Trump, of course, exhibits both; that’s what one would expect from a man who is both incompetent and sloppy. As to syntax, here is Trump’s latest train wreck:

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Leaving aside that “Committees” should not be capitalized and “Hillarys” needs an apostrophe, Trump has once again accidentally expressed a thought that he likely did not mean to express. It seems that he wants unnamed (presumably congressional) committees as well as his attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions The Third, to look into both (as the ampersand is a stand-in for the conjunctive and) Crooked Hillary’s crimes and Russia relations.

But Trump has ordered his words in such a way as to create an ambiguity.  In Trump’s tweet, “Hillarys [sic]” is a dangling modifier (it strikes again!);  “Hillarys [sic]” is dangling off both “crimes” and “Russia relations.” That means that “Hillarys [sic]” might modify both, or it might only modify “crimes.” To borrow from mathematics, we are left wondering whether Trump meant Hillary’s (crimes & Russia relations) or (Hillary’s crimes) + (Russia relations).

It’s not just the dangling modifier that presents a problem here; it’s also the enumeration of two ideas (Hillary’s crimes and Russia relations) that seem only vaguely conceptually related. Imagine that a friend were to text you that she was almost ready to leave her house: “I just have to go to the bathroom & put my shoes on.” Would your friend be telling you that she has to, (1) independently a) go to the bathroom, and b) put her shoes on; or (2) go into the bathroom to put her shoes — the shoes that are in her bathroom — on her feet?

The lack of any concrete conceptual relationship between the two ideas (go to the bathroom and put shoes on) points to choice (1) as the better interpretation. Similarly, given the tenuous relationship between Hillary’s alleged crimes (the email server again?) and anything having to do with Russia, it would seem that the better interpretation of Trump’s tweet is that he would like investigators to pursue both Hillary Clinton’s crimes and, apart from that, also the Russians and their relationships — not Hillary Clinton’s Russia-related crimes.

If Trump had meant the latter, he could simply have added a possessive pronoun to resolve all ambiguity. To illustrate the efficacy of this approach, imagine a parent texting a teenage child, “Today I want you to take care of Grandma’s cat & grocery shopping.” That parent might have expected that the teenager would thereupon feed Grandma’s cat and buy Grandma’s groceries, but it would hardly be fair to gripe if the teenager fed Grandma’s cat and then went grocery shopping for herself and her siblings. After all, that is arguably what the parent’s text instructed the teen to do: “Take care of” could be read as creating two unrelated duties — take care of both (Grandma’s cat) + (grocery shopping) — rather than one duty involving two components: take care of Grandma’s (cat + grocery shopping). If the parent had just added her to the text message (“Today I want you to take care of Grandma’s cat & her grocery shopping”), all would have been well.

Likewise, if Trump had meant to say that the “Russia relations” investigation should relate to Hillary, just like the “crimes” modified by “Hillarys [sic],” then he should have written that he wanted investigators looking into “Hillarys [sic] crimes & her Russia relations.”

Having failed to do that, Trump seems to have endorsed the idea that congressional committees and the Justice Department should be investigating not only Hillary’s crimes, but also Russia’s relationships. I’m sure Rod Rosenstein will be glad to hear it.

-bb