Donald Trump is a man of capricious loyalty, but he has stuck by one stalwart favorite through thick and thin.
The question mark.
Writers use punctuation to clarify and specify their meanings; artists use it to add entirely new meanings, and in this, Trump is a master.
The tweeter-in-chief’s affinity for this deceptively complicated punctuation mark is rooted in its chameleonlike ability to serve him as all of his most loyal foot soldiers do: He can bend it to his purposes, and make it work overtime far beyond its simple job description. Specifically, if he throws a question mark on the end of a statement, he can say whatever he wants, and it’s guaranteed to dominate the news cycle for days.
Last week’s “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” tweet was only his latest wildly successful distraction from the coronavirus death toll of more than 155,000 Americans. As became clear when both the left and the right pounced almost immediately, delaying the election was never actually on the table. But the tweet — which included three question marks, since he was worried that just one might not do the trick — captivated days’ worth of media coverage. The whole time, Trump maintained I-was-just-posing-a-question deniability. Also the whole time, the national conversation focused on his tweet rather than on the country’s abysmal coronavirus response.
He wasn’t saying we should delay the election, of course. Just asking questions.
Over the years Trump has thrown countless bombs posed as questions, whether about Joe Scarborough (“When will they open a Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida. Did he get away with murder? Some people think so. Why did he leave Congress so quietly and quickly? Isn’t it obvious? What’s happening now? A total nut job!”); voter fraud (“Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?”); Joe Scarborough again (“So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair? What about the so-called investigator? Read story!”); something about Democrats wanting people to die (“The Democrats want the Virus to win?”); systemic perjury (“So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come. Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself? Didn’t they lie?”); uh, Joe Scarborough again (“A blow to her head? Body found under his desk? Left Congress suddenly?”); and so many more.
And it’s not just tweets: Such allegations-as-questions were de rigueur for his 2016 presidential campaign, when he posed such queries about immigrants as, “Somebody’s doing the raping … Who’s doing the raping?” and, about Ted Cruz’s father, “What was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the shooting?”
The beleaguered question mark wasn’t designed to withstand this kind of abuse. Scholars date the mark to the eighth century, when Alcuin of York, an intellectual in Charlemagne’s court, first dropped the punctus interrogativus into his writings. It would be 500 years before its use was standardized. Spanish flips it upside down and adds it to the start of a question (¿), and Arabic uses a mirror image (⸮), but otherwise it’s undergone relatively few changes over centuries of writing, while other marks, letters and spellings have mutated many times over.
But even as Trump throws rules of punctuation, spelling, and especially capitalization (ugh, the capitalization) out the window, his use of question marks is a uniquely effective shorthand. Do his question marks scream: “This is not and should never be construed as a statement of fact! I am effectively distracting you from more important things that would probably make you mad if you paid attention to them! I will deny this tomorrow or maybe even later today!”?
Not saying that they do. Just asking the question.
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 orthographics to firstname.lastname@example.org.