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May 29, 2018

Retired Teacher, Criticizing White House Letter, Gets a Big Fat F

 
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Yvonne Mason is a retired high school English teacher and a Democrat who decided to instruct President Donald Trump and the White House on English grammar. Turns out, she demonstrated how much SHE doesn’t know.

Mason had sent a letter to the president—note that I did not capitalize “president”—suggesting some actions he should take with respect to recent gun violence. The White House replied with a letter highlighting actions the president has taken—a very common practice among politicians, especially those who receive as many personal letters as the president.

But what really got Mason riled up was the White House’s practice of capitalizing common nouns. She informs the president, “Federal is capitalized only when used as part of a proper noun.…” At the bottom of the page she exclaims at the sight of “Nation” capitalized, “OMG this is wrong!”

Mason isn’t wrong exactly, just ignorant—in the sense that she does not know that many state and federal agencies often capitalize certain words relating to the government, e.g., State, Federal, Nation, Administration and Government.

In addition, many major newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, often capitalize those words in their unsigned editorials, though they do not typically do that in their news stories.

That style is also common in press releases coming from Washington D.C.-based organizations, such as associations and advocacy groups.

The practice goes back a long time, but the federal government formalized it when it published the “Government Publishing Office (GPO) Style Manual” in 1894.

According to the 2016 edition of the book: “Through successive editions, however, the Manual has come to be widely recognized by writers and editors both within and outside the Federal Government as one of the most useful resources in the editorial arsenal. And now in the 21st century, writers and editors are using the Manual in the preparation of the informational content of Government publications that appear in digital formats.”

(Note to Ms. Mason: These writers capitalize “Federal Government” and “Government” when they are common nouns. You may want to send them a scolding letter also.)

For example, the Manual says, “The official designations of countries, national domains, and their principal administrative divisions are capitalized only if used as part of proper names, as proper names, or as proper adjectives.” As examples it cites, “the Nation; the Union; the Government; also Federal, Federal Government.”

The White House letter adopts the “GPO Manual” pattern.

Not only is the retired teacher ignorant of a very common practice among government offices, she actually gets at least one thing wrong.

The last sentence of the letter begins, “As president, …”  She highlights it and writes “of the U.S. — then it would be capitalized.”

No it wouldn’t, at least not by the standard rules that Mason is championing. If Mason will look at the “AP (Associated Press) Style Manual,” it says, “Capitalize president only as a formal title before one or more names. … Lower case in all other uses.”

So, it would be “President Donald Trump,” or alternatively, “Donald Trump, president of the United States.”

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with correcting someone on improper grammar—that’s what one would expect a retired English teacher to do.

But Mason does it in a caddy, condescending and exasperated way—the intellect correcting the rube. I’ll bet she was never so snide with her high school students.

The Hill quotes her as saying, “If it had been written in high school, I'd give it a D.”

Because Mason doesn’t know what she’s talking about, at least with respect to government-released documents and letters, and because she gives the White House incorrect information based on her own rules, the teacher gets a big fat F.




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