Porch: What do you think about the flagrant misuse of the word “literally”? Does it literally make your head explode?
Pinker: [Laughs.] It’s understandable why people do it. We are always in search of superlatives, of ways of impressing upon our hearer that something that happened is noteworthy or even extraordinary. And the words we use to signal that eventually lose their meaning.
Porch: Like “awesome.”
Pinker: “Awesome” is a recent example. In the UK, “brilliant” is used for the most banal observations. Before that, words like “terrific,” meaning inspiring terror, “wonderful,” inspiring wonder, “fabulous,” worthy of fable. We see the fossils of dead superlatives that our ancestors overused the way we overuse “awesome.” “Literally” is a victim of a similar type of inflation. The figurative use doesn’t mean the language is deteriorating. Hyperbole has probably been around as long as language has been around.
Porch: I don’t think it’s hyperbole. I think people don’t know what “literally” means.
Pinker: I think people know what it means but can’t resist the temptation to overuse it. When I give a talk and point out that someone doesn’t “literally” explode, everyone in the audience laughs. I think they get it.
Porch: Does the comma go inside the closed quotation mark or outside?
Pinker: If I ruled the world, it would go outside.
Porch: That’s terrible. It looks terrible!
Pinker: Our British cousins don’t find it that ugly.
Porch: It looks untidy. It looks like a bedroom with clothes all over the floor.
Pinker: Your aesthetics may have been shaped by a lifetime of seeing it in the American pattern, but this would be a case in which any aesthetic reaction should be trumped by logic. Messing up the order of delimiters in a way that doesn’t reflect the logical nesting of their content is just an affront to an orderly mind.
Porch: Should it be “the news media is” or “the news media are”?
Pinker: I tend not to be a pedant about Latin plurals. I like “the media are,” but I’m in a fussy minority here.
Porch: What about “data”?
Pinker: I prefer data as a plural of datum—so I refer to one datum, many data— but the linguist in me recognizes that it is quite common for Latin plurals to become English singulars, such as “agenda.” Originally it was agendum “is” and agenda “are.” Likewise, candelabra is now singular, and it used to be be the plural of candelabrum.
Porch: Are you an Oxford comma guy?
Pinker: [Laughs.] I put my vote with the Oxford comma.
Porch: I like the Oxford comma. It keeps things clear.
Pinker: I do, too, though I think Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young would disagree with us!
Porch: Nathan Heller dinged you in The New Yorker for having what he considered a loose approach to usage rules on things like “who” vs. “whom.”
Pinker: Nathan Heller’s an ignoramus. He really does not know what he’s talking about. He said that in the sentence “It is I” that “I” is the subject of the sentence, which is just a howler. Sentences don’t have two subjects. He is doing exactly what I said one should not do, which is to confuse meaning, case, and grammatical relations, which is what he does in that preposterous claim. If you were to say, “I think we should break up, but it’s not you; it’s I,” you’d sound like a pompous jackass.