At the end of a night of bluster, insults, and more overtalking than your kid’s fourth-grade Zoom class, everything hinged on phrasal verbs.

In the first presidential debate, when Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump if he would condemn white supremacists and militias, including the Proud Boys, the current White House occupant responded with two phrasal verbs: “Stand back and stand by.”

Not much of a condemnation.

Phrasal verbs combine a verb, like stand, with a word in another part of speech — in this case, the respective adverbs back and by. This Angry Grammarian has condemned the weakness of plenty of adverbs, but here, they’re essential to establishing what exactly Trump was asking the Proud Boys — a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group — to do. So they deserve some scrutiny.

The two phrases both go back to the late Middle Ages/early Tudor years, albeit with goofy spellings like “stonde bac” and “standyne by.” But stand by is the more complicated phrase, laden with considerably more meaning — which helps explain why it will likely be cited alongside phrases like “very fine people” and “suburban housewives” to describe Trump’s racism.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives just one definition for stand back, but stand by goes on for six entries — several of which will give plausible deniability to those who disclaim racist intent on Trump’s behalf. But today’s most common understanding of stand by — “to hold oneself in readiness, be prepared (for something, to do something)” — came along in the 17th century. The definition adds, “Often in imperative = be ready!” — notable because Trump used it in the imperative, and because who knew that the OED uses exclamation points within its definitions? Guess that old dictionary is wilder than we thought.

If he’d wanted to, Trump could have saved himself the controversy by pinning another noun, almost any noun, onto the end of the phrase, which would have turned by into a preposition, a more innocent part of speech: “stand back and stand by the building,” “stand back and stand by that ice cream truck,” “stand back and stand by my son-in-law, Jared.” Prepositions are problem-free. But he didn’t.

It’s also possible that he didn’t mean it to be the call to action that it sounded like. Trump is a master of impact-via-repetition, a rhetorical device he employed throughout the night, and this could have been an inarticulate attempt at that.

For example, on the number of pandemic deaths, he repeated: “You don’t know how many people died in China. You don’t know how many people died in Russia. You don’t know how many people died in India.” On the economy: “He wants to shut down this country. … Let me shut you down for a second, Joe.” When asked if he believed humans cause climate change, he repeated variations on the phrase “forest management” five times despite the fact that forest management has nothing to do with whether humans cause climate change.

So it’s possible that he was going for rhetorical repetition, and “stand by” was the first “stand” phrase that came to mind. Given all his years on television — where “stand by” is frequently said before cameras roll — he certainly would have heard it enough.

But white supremacists and others, including the Proud Boys, are terrifying. I’m not about to place too much faith in any adverb — no matter how weak it is.

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 causative verbs to jeff@theangrygrammarian.com.

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