Political power doesn't ensure proper grammar


People often ask me whether good grammar is important. There’s usually a subtext to their question. It’s “Validate all the sweat and effort I’ve put into learning how to speak and write properly.” My pat answer tends to disappoint: Proper grammar is like a nice suit. It might be crucial when applying for that dream job, but you can ditch the starched-shirt formality if you’re going to a backyard barbecue.

Today, I stand corrected. Turns out good grammar and even tenth-grade writing skills are immaterial to one of the most important jobs in the country provided that, along with your resume, you send a mountain of cash.

Behold the language skills of a man accused in federal court of slipping $16 million of other people’s money to one Paul Manafort while simultaneously seeking a job as Secretary of the United States Army.

Stephen M. Calk, trusted custodian of depositors’ savings at Chicago’s Federal Savings Bank – an institution focused on serving veterans with home loans and the like – submitted his application materials to Manafort well after the latter was officially removed from the presidential team. This was around the same time he approved $16 million in loans to Manafort.

In his job application materials, Calk listed the prospective roles he might assume. Except he spelled them “perspective rolls.” Calk continued to misspell “roles” elsewhere in the employment paperwork, with the exception of a passage whose wording was identical to that of a Wikipedia entry.

Regarding Calk’s hand-picked subordinates to help him run the United States Army, Calk wrote that he “can have them on boarded within 30 days.” Perhaps they’re a highly qualified bunch, but we can safely bet none has a proofreading background.

The document was titled “Qualification Memorandum on Behalf of Stephen M. Calk Articulating His Qualifications to Serve as the 22nd Secretary of the Army,” which is very helpful for any reader who doesn’t know that a qualification memorandum articulates qualifications.

Calk also wrote that his own “financial acumen, academic proficiency and national reputation is without equal,” leaving us to wonder what type of academic proficiency eschews subject-verb agreement.

The remainder of the application materials leave an inquisitive reader wondering whether Calk ever bribed a freshman English teacher. Yet he sure has gone far in life, making it to CEO of an institution focused on lending to veterans then courageously handing a substantial fraction of that bank’s lendable assets to Manafort, who’s not a veteran.

Calk’s inarticulate bid to for Secretary of the Army shot straight up the chain of command. Manafort sent Calk’s application to not-yet-disgraced Rick Gates, who sent it to Jared Kushner, who emailed the reply: “On it!”

So kids, if anyone tells you language skills are important to getting ahead in this world, you can just shout “You’re wrong!” while waving around $16 million of veterans’ money.

True, there are powerful people out there – people who may hold your fate in their hands – who will fuss over your grammar. Lucky for you, many don’t know what they’re talking about.

Judge T.S. Ellis, presiding over the Manafort case, ripped into a prosecutor for his grammar. Apparently, the prosecution had filed a legal brief containing the words “you are expressly to understand.” Ellis assailed that language, saying it was “wrong” diction and that no one speaks that way, but adding “at least it didn’t split the infinitive.”

Apparently, Ellis believes that putting “expressly” between “to” and “understand” would create the dreaded split infinitive, even though there exists no such error.

"Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does," “Elements of Style” authors Strunk and White advise.

The lesson here, kids: If you use proper grammar, some blowhard could hold it against you. But if you can’t make a verb agree with a subject but you can make dirty deals with other people’s millions, the world’s your oyster.

- June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Synax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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