Trump and language…hint: language matter

Part of my job is to analyze language. Students need to understand their own use of language in order to become better writers, and my role is to help them with that process. They also need to understand how authors use language to convey their ideas, so we spend a great deal of time analyzing how authors use literary devices such as diction, syntax, structure and figurative language to convey meaning.

Let’s take something easy and famous as an example. In the poem “The Road Not Taken” (*see below) by Robert Frost, my students will analyze the significance of fact that Frost only uses one exclamation point, and they will be able to tell you why he might have made that particular choice on that particular line. They will also be able to tell you why the poem is called “The Road Not Taken,” rather than something about the road he did take. If the road the speaker took was so important to him that “it has made all the difference,” why is the road he didn’t actually take the one he references in the title?**

Come to my classes, and watch as students are able to articulate complex ideas and thoughts like that with insight and sophistication.

I can’t help but wonder what my students (past and present) are thinking of Trump’s use of rhetoric right now.

Let’s deal with only a small part of Trump’s most recent gaffe: He says, “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything….Grab them by the – – – – -. You can do anything.”***

If my classes and I discussed this excerpt (which we won’t be doing, by the way), to start the discussion, I would ask them something like this: “What’s the most significant word in that section?” It’s a low-level starting point, which is often what starting points need to be.

I’m not a gambler, but I’d still bet that someone would say that the word “grab” is the most significant. There’s another word in there that’s also incredibly important, but it’s a noun, and verbs are often a better choice when discussing rhetoric.

So let’s go with “grab.” When and in what situations is that word used? We’d start there.

“Grab” is a harsh word. You might grab a gun if you needed to defend yourself, but you wouldn’t grab a gun that was sitting on display in a store, for example. You’d grab a child who was starting to run in front of traffic, but you wouldn’t grab a child to snuggle him and read him a bedtime story. You might grab your purse if you’re late for work, but you wouldn’t grab your pearl necklace for a fancy dinner, even if you’re late.

I could go on and on, and so could my students. The point is that the word “grab” often implies some degree of violence or being rushed or scared. It implies emotion, but generally not love or intimacy or any degree of tenderness.

It might also imply carelessness. You might grab a bite to eat at McDonalds, but not at Le Bernardin. You might grab a shower when you get home from work, but you wouldn’t attempt to grab a bath for your eight-month-old baby. You might grab a cup of coffee on the way to work, but you wouldn’t do so on a first date.

Why would Trump “grab” any part of a woman’s body? Would he need to actually “grab” anything if the women truly “let” him do “anything,” as he stated they do—presumably because he’s so rich and all? And why, if he’s going to grab something, would it be that particular part of the body?

I’m not answering those questions for you, but some of my students probably are answering them for themselves.

Language matters. And the patterns of a person’s language matter even more.


** I could completely digress about the fact that the speaker in a poem doesn’t title the poem, the author does that. So what’s probably going on in “The Road Not Taken” is that Frost, who titled the poem, is gently mocking the speaker of the poem.

***This blog is already too long, but I’d love to analyze his use of the words “can” and “let.”

  • The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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