The FBI special counsel’s Friday indictments against 13 Russian nationals and three companies including a notorious online troll farm did a few things: It revealed that the surge of grass-roots organizing for the 2016 presidential election was at least partly astroturf. It confirmed that the whirligig of ire directed at Hillary Clinton was not completely genuine. And it reasserted the importance of correct grammar.
The indictment includes charges against Mikhail Ivanovich Bystrov and Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik for creating aliases like “Matt Skiber” and “firstname.lastname@example.org,” part of an alleged effort to organize anti-Clinton rallies and wire money to unwitting U.S. collaborators. The social media campaign was vast: One agent bragged about creating “all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”
It was altogether an impressive undertaking. But while Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein reminded us that “people are not always who they appear on the Internet,” maybe we should have known. It wouldn’t have taken the FBI: A fastidious English major could have seen the Russians’ inexplicable capitalizations, stiff sentences, and missing articles.
One political ad placed online by the Russians apparently read, “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.” Just a Satan, not the? Is there a class of Satans of which Hillary was just one example? If so, why capitalize the S? If this sounds like a tedious debate to you, then you would likely not be the grammarian this country needs.
In one email to a Trump campaign official, a disguised Russian agent reportedly wrote: “We gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected.” Is a huge lot a Walmart-size amount? Costco? Not to mention the awkwardly deployed somehow.
As noted in the Washington Post last year, “A revealing characteristic of the Russian language, the absence of the definite and indefinite article, is evident in statements such as ‘out of cemetery’ and ‘burqa is a security risk.’ ” But, the article goes on to say, these mistakes are harder to take notice of given how sloppily written the average social media discourse is.
What this implies is that we were wrong to ever let it become uncool to fixate on bad grammar and slack syntax, no matter what the venue. It may be that sophists point out errant apostrophes while philosophers argue on the merits, but the not-so-good English that may have swayed an election should vindicate the grammar scolds among us. So scold on, pedants: It’s not just good again to pay attention to sentence fragments and dangling participles—it’s patriotic.