It was surely the first time in history that a president’s credibility had hung from a pair of punctuation marks. Last week, in his efforts to extenuate President Trump’s tweeted claims that President Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower,” press secretary Sean Spicer came up with a novel and ingenious explanation. “The president was very clear in his tweet that it was, you know, ‘wiretapping,’” Spicer said, flipping up air quotes around the word. “That spans a whole host of surveillance types of options.”

On one level, this was just another of the unending efforts by Trump’s apologists to explain away, one after another, his falsehoods and fabulations as linguistic or rhetorical maneuvers. He didn’t mean it literally, they say; he was being ironic, or joking. At other times, he just was being refreshingly folksy, punctuating the way regular people do. Or in this case, as Spicer tells it, he was deftly using quotation marks to expand the meaning of a word.

Linguistically, of course, that’s nonsense, though it didn’t stop Trump from seizing on Spicer’s interpretation in subsequent days. (“Nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes,” the president told Tucker Carlson, “but that’s a very important thing.”) But over and above what the quotation marks didn’t mean, it’s worth asking why Trump used them in the first place. Because the answer to that question offers an insight into Trump’s abiding insecurity about his profound illiteracy.

Why did Trump put quotation marks around “wire tapped”? Most people took him as using scare quotes, which is what Spicer signaled when he accompanied the expression with air quotes, their gestural equivalent. Scare quotes are the ones we deploy when we want to use a word without signing on for all the associations attached to it, as in “Voters are resentful of ‘elites.’” The device goes back to the nineteenth century; Henry James was besotted with it. But both the term “scare quotes” and the parallel gesture are recent inventions that reflect the modern vogue for the device, which has spilled over from literature to everyday use. 

Scare quotes have become something of a modern plague, saturating whole quarters of modern discourse with cynicism, insinuation, and sarcasm. So it isn’t surprising that people would take Trump’s quotation marks as just another instance of the phenomenon. The Guardian said that Trump had used scare quotes to distance himself from the words. In The New York Times, Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote that Trump’s use of scare quotes had “turned an invention of the urbane and educated against them. He has weaponized irony.”

Now, even if you assumed that Trump really intended to use scare quotes (and even if you overlooked the tweets in which he referred to Obama tapping his phones without using the marks), they couldn’t have worked the way Spicer suggested, signifying a “whole host of options.” Scare quotes can seal off the implications of a word—its pretentiousness or modishness, say—but they can’t add any new ones: They can signal “so-called,” but not, “and such like.” Saying that when you put “wiretapping” in quotes, it covers a range of surveillance types—that’s like saying that when you write, “We had a lot of ‘rain’ today,” you might be talking about snow or sleet.

But Spicer and the rest give Trump more credit than he deserves. The quotes in those tweets weren’t scare quotes at all, not even misused ones. Trump has occasionally used scare quotes—on February 15, he tweeted, “The real scandal is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy.” But the vast majority of the quotation marks in Trump’s tweets are of a type we rarely see in public discourse, though they’re common enough in private life: The North Koreans “have been ‘playing’ the United States”; “there are a lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!” “The race for DNC Chairman was totally ‘rigged.’” He even does it with the word “tweet”:

Those are anything but scare quotes. When Trump tweets, “the FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers,’” he isn’t distancing himself from the word “leakers”—after all, he’s the one who has been hammering on that charge. Trump’s quotes aren’t just what the lexicographer Grant Barrett calls “shout quotes” that supermarket managers use for emphasis (“Try our ‘fresh’ eggs.”). When Trump wants to be emphatic, he puts a word in all caps or adds an exclamation point instead—“SO DANGEROUS!”  

As Ben Yagoda noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Trump’s use of quotation marks actually suggests the insecurity of the unpracticed writer who worries that a word may be too clichéd or colloquial for written English—the woman who writes, “I’m going to stick with my ‘hubby,’” to show she knows the word is slangy, or the student who writes, “Things got ‘hot and heavy,’” hoping to escape the charge of triteness.

In 1926, the grammarian H. W. Fowler classed quotes like these among the devices used by writers “who wish to safeguard their dignity & yet be vivacious.” Like scare quotes, they’re meant to immunize the writer from the taint of the word’s associations, but out of fear of sounding uneducated or common. The effect is invariably the opposite.


Clear away the flattering and fanciful interpretations, and you’re left with this: Trump’s amateurish quotation marks underscore his fraught relation to the written language of public life. He is the least literate president to take office since the rudely schooled Zachary Taylor in 1849 (“an illiterate frontier colonel,” in Daniel Webster’s words), though Trump is deficient, not in education, but in attention span. In a way, that’s a tribute to his success—in modern America, semi-literacy is viable only for those at the very bottom of society, who are rarely called on to read and write, and for those at the very top, who can hire others to do it for them.

Trump lived almost all of his public and private life in conversation—on talk shows, on the telephone, in boardrooms real and simulated, and ultimately, in call-and-response standup on the campaign trail. But paradoxically, no modern president has used writing to communicate with the public as extensively as Trump has, thanks to the appearance of a mass medium which is tolerant of careless writing and rewards pithiness and oversimplification. Twitter seems to be tailor-made for Trump’s unedited effusions, which make no more demands on its syntax than the medium can handle: “This thing. That thing. SAD!”

Still, writing is writing, and even on Twitter, Trump’s anxiety about the written language sometimes bubbles to the surface. The most revealing of the expressions he puts in quotes aren’t the ones that strike us as slang, like “dude.” They’re ones like “leaker,” “rigged” and even “stupid”—words that sound as if they could be colloquial or slang, but that most of us would consider completely standard. 

But you have to be steeped in the written language to know which is which. Is “wiretap” a colloquial term? Not by my lights, but it might seem that way to Trump; the fact that he writes it as two words, spelling the second one “tapp,” suggests that he hasn’t encountered it in writing all that often. As Lucy Ferris has written of Trump’s chronic misspellings, “If you see a word correctly spelled millions of times, then regardless of the peculiarities of English orthography, you’re apt to know when it looks ‘wrong.’” 

For the country he runs, this is much more troubling than the oral solecisms and malaprops that earned George W. Bush an undeserved reputation as a semi-literate philistine. (I can’t imagine Bush writing “wire tapp,” much less putting the word in quotes.)

Trump’s success as a politician owes a lot to his conspicuous disregard for the language of public life, of course. But when he tweets, he exposes himself as someone who has only a tenuous acquaintance with that language in its written form—not just as a man who doesn’t read books, but as a man who doesn’t read. Sealed in the bubble of his orality, he’s cut off from history, from biography, from sciences hard and soft. 

That’s no impediment to running a large company, but it seriously impairs his ability to run a country, particularly if he’s at pains to deny or conceal it. Of Spicer’s two fictions, the more telling wasn’t that Trump was cleverly using scare quotes to give “wiretap” a more general meaning. It’s that Trump had any clear idea what he was doing at all.