Do you swear to tell truth…

One ex-president’s shaky relationship with definite articles

Published April 8, 2024

I do my best to avoid thinking, and especially writing about, Donald Trump. He takes up plenty of space and psychic energy as it is! However, his use of language is certainly unique, and I was struck by how one of his idiosyncratic patterns was recently parodied on Saturday Night Live.

On March 30, cast member James Austin Johnson reprised his impression of Trump in a sketch that was a combination Easter tribute(?)/Bible infomercial. SNL basically had no choice but to take up Trump’s absurd new Bible-sales side hustle, which would be almost poetic if it weren’t such a barefaced grift. 

Exploitation aside, Johnson’s impression highlighted one particular Trump feature that doesn’t always get a lot of press: the man does weird stuff with definite articles. In the past, commentators have observed that Trump often places definite articles before groups that he’s … well, pretending to be a fan of. See for example: “The Gays,” “The Women,” and “The Blacks.”

The main criticism about this use of “the,” particularly in front of a reference to a marginalized group, is that it’s often a strategy used to “other” them. It also functions to homogenize them, implying that everyone who shares that demographic feature behaves the same (in this case, by opposing him). By constantly referring to “The Hispanics” or “the Muslims,” Trump reminds his audience that the group is “over there,” reinforcing his effective strategy of consistently establishing an out-group designed to contrast with his supporters.

But however much Trump overuses the definite article before group names, he hardly invented it, as opposed to another tendency that Johnson also faithfully portrays: omitting the definite article before other random nouns. (Two examples from the sketch: “As you know, I love Bible,” and “It comes with everything you like from Bible.”) These omissions don’t really sound offensive or othering, just weird. So far, I haven’t found any compelling evidence about why Trump does this, but it’s clear that the pattern is notable to others – or at least to comedy writers.

We’ve still got a long campaign season to endure, and I’m sure other, more inflammatory Trumpisms will rise to the top of future news cycles. But meanwhile, I’ll be keeping an eye on his overuse and underuse of “the” – and, of course, public responses to his very specific linguistic style.

Vibe Shift is a column by linguist Nicole Holliday that examines how words and phrases are moving across the internet. Each month, we’ll explore new topics related to how the language and culture are changing. 

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