'Literally,' Emojis, and Other Trends That Aren't Destroying English

Experimental psychologist Steven Pinker talks about a few cherished grammar rules he'd prefer to see forgotten—and replies to critics of his book The Sense of Style.

Harvard University Scientist Steven Pinker poses for a portrait in his office on October 10, 2005 in Boston, MA (Jean-Christian Bourcart / Getty Images)

As an experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker thinks about writing. As a linguist, he thinks about writing.

In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, the author and Harvard professor mines both the science of cognitive psychology—how the brain processes language, how we associate words with meanings, etc.—and the art of language to re-engineer the writing guide.

I spoke with Pinker about his new book, his grammar feud with The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller, why the misuse of “literally” doesn’t literally or figuratively drive him crazy, and how italics—as used in the first paragraph of this interview—may be the writing tool you’re not using enough.

Scott Porch: Do people write the way they talk?

Steven Pinker: Not really. Clearly, there’s overlap and some people write in a more conversational style than others, but it is striking how a transcript of a talk given extemporaneously does not read well on the printed page. I first noticed this when I was a teenager and read the Watergate transcripts—the conversations among Nixon and advisors like Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Mitchell. A number of people at the time who had never seen conversations transcribed were astonished at how difficult they were to interpret.

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.

Porch: He’s making an argument, though, that language needs committed rules to give writers a baseline, which is different than a writer knowing the rules and taking license with them.

Pinker: He’s wrong. That’s absolutely not what I say. As you and I have noted in this very conversation, I have motivated guidelines as to how one should or shouldn’t write. It’s not that good writers have chosen to flout a rule; it’s that the rule is not a rule in the first place. What Heller and many writers before him have never asked is: What makes a rule a rule? Who decides? Where does it come from? They write as if there’s some tribunal or rules committee who makes the rules of English, which there isn’t, or that it’s a matter of logic or objective reality, which it isn’t.

Porch: In the book, you cite a flyer that had some accidental language about an event featuring “sex with four professors.” Can you talk a bit about that?

Pinker: [Laughs.] It was about “a panel on sex with four professors,” which sounds racier than it was. We tend to connect material to the immediately preceding words as opposed to words even earlier in the sentence. The intended reading was that “with four professors” modified “panel,” but we associate it with the immediately preceding word “sex.”

But that does not work when it is a “a panel of four professors on drugs.” We store the patterns of usage when we learn phrases like “on drugs” and “sex with.” That overrides the expectations we have that sentences are right-branching.

Porch: Italics are a good way for a writer to telegraph what he means by telling you how to say it in your head, but they seem informal to use. Are they?

Pinker: No, I’m a big fan of italics. I think your intuition is correct that it eases a reader’s task of parsing and interpreting a sentence in the way that a writer intended. It’s particularly useful in emphasizing contrast, which echoes what we do in conversation. There’s a strain of Jewish humor that hinges on which word is stressed in speech, which corresponds to which word is in italics in writing.

I remember a joke from my childhood that Stalin had read a letter from Trotsky that said, “You were right, and I was wrong. You are the true heir of Lenin, and I should apologize.” And a man ran up and said, “No, you forget that Trotsky was Jewish. The proper reading is: You were right, and I was wrong? You are the true heir of Lenin, and I should apologize?”

Porch: When you recognize that a phrase is like Faulkner or like Hemingway, is there something about the syntax and style of those writers that a linguist can actually describe?

Pinker: That is largely unexplored territory at the intersection of linguistics and literary studies that I would love to see filled. There are computer algorithms that look at statistics of word choice and transition probabilities—how often you use one word after another—that can distinguish writerly styles. It has been used, for example, to figure out which passages of The Federalist Papers were written by Madison or Hamilton or Jay and to determine whether Shakespeare had a co-author on some of his plays.

Porch: And plagiarism is being discovered that way.

Pinker: Indeed, it is. Even though those statistical techniques can ascertain authorship, they don’t provide much insight as to what makes a style a style. I think a literary scholar with training in linguistics, or vice versa, could comment insightfully on what makes Faulkner Faulkner.

Porch: Eric Hayot’s new style guide for academic writing says graduate programs don’t put enough priority on writing instruction and that the things you have to write as a graduate student aren’t especially conducive to the things you would write as an academic. Do you agree with that?

Pinker: He’s absolutely right. The amount of writing instruction in a typical graduate program is zero, which is definitely too little. I find it interesting that the writing of graduate students is often worse than that of undergraduate students.

Porch: Hayot thinks that may be because students in masters and Ph.D. programs tested out of a lot of high school and undergraduate classes where they would have learned how to write well.

Pinker: That’s not mutually exclusive from my observation, which is that when you enter graduate school you enter into a tiny clique, a sub-sub-sub-set of your discipline. Your estimate of the breadth of the knowledge of the people you are writing for gets radically miscalibrated. Highly idiosyncratic ideas are discussed if they are common knowledge, and you lose the sense of how tiny a club you have joined. And you’re in terror of being judged naive and unprepared, and so you signal in your writing that you’re a member of this esoteric club.

Porch: And the professor you’re defending your dissertation to may not be a very good writer either.

Pinker: The professor may not be a good writer, and he’s exactly the person who knows all the idiosyncratic jargon and who talks about “stimulation used in a habituation paradigm” and may even have coined that jargon.

Porch: Is there anyone you would point to who is writing about language and usage today along the lines of what William Safire wrote for years in his “On Language” column in New York Times Magazine?

Pinker: The foremost would be Language Log, which has contributions from about a dozen linguists. The two main contributors are Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum, and they are both astonishingly brilliant and both are superb writers. Pullum is one of my favorite essayists in any genre. John McWhorter is extremely good. Ben Zimmer, who wrote the “On Language” column at one point, is also fabulous. Another is Jan Freeman, who has a blog called Throw Grammar from the Train.

Porch: There was a big think piece on emoji recently in New York magazine. Are you pro- or anti-emoji?

Pinker: I don’t think it means the death of language. One of the interesting discoveries I came across reading earlier style manuals was a manual written by F.L. Lucas in the 1950s. He said the English language really could use a new punctuation mark that indicated that the foregoing sentence was used ironically or in jest. He basically called for the smiley face 35 years before it came to email.

Porch: Can we talk about the hair, or is that off limits?

Pinker: [Laughs.] So what’s the deal with the hair?

Porch: There’s an illustration of you on your website with huge hair that looks like a caricature from the New York Review of Books.

Pinker: That is absolutely from the New York Review of Books by longtime artist David Levine. I bought the original a number of years ago and have it hanging in my study. A fair number of people approach me and say, “Are you Simon Rattle?” [Rattle is the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and has lots of curly hair.] If I ever meet Simon Rattle, I’ll ask him if people ever confuse him with Steven Pinker and be prepared for the answer, “Who?”