This article was updated on December 22, 2018.
On a worrisome day in Washington—with a government shutdown looming and the defense secretary resigning—a clip of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen served as unexpected comic relief. Nielsen, speaking before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, responded to a question from Representative Tom Marino by saying, “From Congress I would ask for wall. We need wall.”
"I would ask for wall. We need wall." pic.twitter.com/mkgHZWFgyI— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) December 20, 2018
Nielsen was, of course, referring to the wall along the southern border with Mexico that President Donald Trump has demanded that Congress fund, precipitating the shutdown threat. When asked by Marino to clarify what she meant by “wall,” she explained that what the administration envisions is really a “wall system,” combining walls, fencing, and various technology.
Nielsen’s plea for “wall”—as opposed to “a wall” or “the wall”—drew torrents of ridicule on Twitter. Oliver Willis of Shareblue Media posted the clip, confirming that it was “an actual quote” from the secretary of homeland security and not from the Incredible Hulk, despite Nielsen’s primitive-sounding “Hulk smash” locution. Besides the Hulk, “We need wall” reminded some of Steve Carell as the low-IQ weatherman Brick Tamland in Anchorman awkwardly declaring “I love lamp.” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes mused, “Did DHS make a style guide change that there’s no definite article before wall?” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo agreed that this seems like an intentional shift in usage, “but it’s not clear what the point is beyond sounding like you have some kind of focused brain damage.”
Just last week, DHS was roundly mocked for a press release that used wall in a similar manner. When it was originally published on the department’s website, the release began, “DHS is committed to building wall and building wall quickly.” But just a few days later—after widespread derision on social media—the wording was silently changed so that the opening sentence read, “DHS is committed to building a wall at our southern border and building a wall quickly.”
Despite this editorial tinkering, it’s clear from Nielsen’s testimony that using wall without a preceding article (either the definite the or the indefinite a) is now a standard part of the Trump administration’s language on border security. And it’s fair to wonder whether Trump himself, with the clipped rhetoric he has fashioned both on the stump and on Twitter, is responsible for the stylistic shift.
Consider the evidence. Trump first sounded the alarm about the Mexican border in an all-caps tweet back in August 2014: “SECURE THE BORDER! BUILD A WALL!” Then in April 2015, still two months before he declared his presidential candidacy, Trump said in an interview on Fox News with Bret Baier, “People don’t realize Mexico is not our friend. We have to build the wall.”
The boiled-down version of “Build the wall” would become an oft-heard chant at Trump rallies, with the same trisyllabic cadence as other crowd favorites including “Drain the swamp” and “Lock her up.” Using a definite article to specify “the wall” served to make Trump’s vague campaign promise sound more concrete, something that his supporters would recognize as shared, common knowledge, appropriate for bumper-sticker sloganeering.
But once “the wall” was established as a Trumpian touchstone, even the definite article could be jettisoned, especially in the limited space of a tweet. On the morning of the Super Tuesday primaries on March 15, 2016, Trump tweeted out his campaign’s core message: “I will bring our jobs back to America, fix our military and take care of our vets, end Common Core and ObamaCare, protect 2nd A, build WALL.” Granted, Trump was running up against what was then a limitation of 140 characters on Twitter, but that “build WALL” closer would become a new kind of signature phrase (even after he could luxuriate in 280 characters when Twitter expanded the limit in November 2017).
Removing definite or indefinite articles in English is associated with terse “headlinese,” which also omits conjunctions and forms of the verb to be. Thus, a news headline might elliptically read “Government facing shutdown” rather than the more fully expressed sentence, “The government is facing a shutdown.” Trump’s tweets sometimes mimic this abbreviated style, especially when he is compressing his rhetorical standbys like “wall”—or, depending on his capitalization whims, “Wall” or “WALL.” Last March, when Trump was wrangling with Congress over how much of an omnibus spending bill would be allocated for border security, his tweets included such lines as “Got $1.6 Billion to start Wall on Southern Border, rest will be forthcoming,” “I had to fight for Military and start of Wall,” and, most cryptically, “Build WALL through M!”
In turning “the wall” into “wall,” Trump isn’t simply saving a few characters, though. Forgoing the definite article can also change the syntactic role of wall from a “count noun” to a “mass noun,” as linguists put it. A count noun is, as the name implies, something you can enumerate discretely and express in the singular or plural, while a mass noun is reserved for something that resists differentiation into units, whether it’s an abstraction like fun or luck, or a substance like flour or cement. There was a time in the history of English when wall could more easily be thought of as a mass noun. The Oxford English Dictionary documents usage of wall from around 1600 with a sense of “walling”—that is, the materials that make up a wall, or walls considered collectively. As Politico’s Timothy Noah recalled when he heard Nielsen’s “We need wall,” Shakespeare used wall without an article in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The character Nick Bottom suggests that in the play-within-the-play, an actor should portray a wall through which the lovers whisper: “Some man or other must present Wall.”
Shakespeare aside, for most of its history, wall has been a straightforward count noun. But in the same way that mass nouns can sometimes be converted into count nouns (for a recent example, think of email), count nouns can also get “massified” on occasion. For instance, we tend to think of vote as countable, but in election-night coverage you might hear pundits use it as a mass noun, as in, “We don’t have enough vote to make a call in this race.”
Just as the mass-noun version of vote finds its place in electoral jargon, the massification of wall serves a particular purpose in Nielsen’s bureaucratic discourse, beyond simply emulating her boss.
For Nielsen, using wall as a mass noun makes it easier to talk about proposed structures along the border without committing to a single discrete wall, since whatever they’re planning along the border couldn’t possibly work that way. It is, after all, more of a “wall system” (with “steel slats,” we’re now told). The mass-noun spin on wall should tip off supporters that the border may be more nebulous than they imagined.