Wondering why Donald Trump sounded especially unhinged on last weekend’s inept shakedown attempt of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger? Look to Trump’s pronoun usage.
Throughout the full transcript of the call, in which Trump issued vague threats about what might happen if Raffensperger didn’t “find 11,780 votes,” something is conspicuously missing: antecedents. Scores of them. Had Trump employed a few more, he might have set himself up for more success and sounded less like a crackpot conspiracy theorist.
Antecedents are the words that pronouns stand in place of; they help pronouns function. For example, in the sentence “Trump made his call to Raffensperger,” his is the pronoun and Trump is the antecedent. That allows you to avoid writing, “Trump made Trump’s call to Raffensperger” — always wise for someone who wants to avoid the guy’s name as much as possible.
But for those pronouns to work as they’re supposed to, the antecedent has to be crystal clear. Plenty of bad writing has ambiguous antecedents as the culprit.
In his 62-minute call, Trump uttered the pronoun they 152 times: Roughly every 47th word out of his mouth was they, almost double the frequency of anyone else on the call. And in an unsettling number of those instances, it’s impossible to tell from context who they are.
“Early in the morning, they [all emphasis added] went to the table with the black robe and the black shield, and they pulled out the votes … they are burning their ballots, that they are shredding, shredding ballots and removing equipment. They’re changing the equipment on the Dominion machines … they say it’s not possible to have lost Georgia … they dropped a lot of votes in there late at night … why did they put the votes in three times? … they need more time for the big numbers … it is more illegal for you than it is for them because, you know, what they did and you’re not reporting it … they are removing machinery, and they’re moving it as fast as they can … they dumped ballots into Fulton County … there were 18,000 ballots, but they used them three times …”
Feel free to search for context. You won’t find it. The result is a bunch of nefarious actions performed by a shadowy, undefined, antecedent-less they.
If you want to absolve anyone of responsibility for any action, using passive voice is a common way to do so. And Trump did plenty of that on the call too: “Ballots were dropped mysteriously onto the rolls … those votes were put there a number of hours before … you had drop boxes that were picked up,” and so on. But antecedent-less pronouns are just the sneakier cousin of passive voice: They’re typically written in active voice, so they seem to assign responsibility for the verb’s action. But that responsibility is a mirage: A search for accountability leads to an unmanned paper shredder under a desk in Fulton County, Ga.
Making sure that your pronouns have proper antecedents isn’t just good grammar — it makes your claims fact-checkable. If you can point to a specific person who is dropping or shredding or dumping ballots, that person can be prosecuted and held accountable. If you can’t, and an ambiguous they is all you have to stand on … well, then grammar might be the least of your problems.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and demonstrative pronouns to firstname.lastname@example.org.