A World Without "Whom" is Eats, Shoots, & Leaves for the Internet age, and Emmy Favilla is the go-to expert of Internetspeak.
As language evolves faster than ever before, what is the future of “correct” style? With wry cleverness and an uncanny intuition for the possibilities of Internet-age expressiveness, Favilla argues that rather than try to preserve the sanctity of the written language as laid out by Strunk and White, we should be concerned with the larger issues of clarity, flexibility, playfulness, and political awareness. Her approach to the new rules--as practical as they are fun--will fascinate and delight believers and naysayers alike.
This engaging, provocative book about how language changes is as full of humor and charm as it is full of useful advice. Featuring uproarious emoji-strings, sidebars, quizzes, and style debates among the most lovable nerds of the Web copy world--of which Favilla is queen--A World Without “Whom” is essential for anyone invested in the future of words and writing.
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About the Author
Emmy J. Favilla joined the BuzzFeed team in 2012 and is now copy chief. She is also the original creator of the BuzzFeed style guide, which garnered a great deal of media attention as the unofficial "style guide for the Internet" when it went public in 2014. A New York University graduate, Favilla has worked as a copy editor at Seventeen magazine, Teen Vogue, and Natural Health. She lives in New York City with two cats, two dogs, and two rabbits.
Read an Excerpt
The Birth of the BuzzFeed Style Guide
My first day at BuzzFeed was October 29, 2012. It was also the day that Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record to date, hit New York City. And so while all my new coworkers were adhering to contingency plans and working from their own or someone else's home, I spent my first week at this weird little startup (at the time, comprising roughly 150 employees) hanging out on my couch, meeting all my new colleagues over email and Twitter — and frantically combing through my Twitter history for anything inappropriate, which I would soon learn was wholly unnecessary, if not detrimental to making new friends — trying to figure out a logical, sustainable system for copyediting a site that had never before employed a copy editor. All this as the entire editorial team swarmed the story of the storm from every angle possible, from the somber and heartfelt ("60 Extremely Powerful Photos of Sandy's Destruction Everyone Needs to See") to the silly, absurd, and uplifting ("Hurricane Sandy Texts from Your Mom"). It became immediately clear to me just how dedicated, intelligent, creative, diligent, fearless, and ridiculous the entire group of humans I would go on to call my BuzzFeed family was. From day one (literally) I've been filled with a profound sense of pride and awe that has only intensified in the years since, as I've watched the company balloon into a household name and witnessed the birth of BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, the BuzzFeed Entertainment Group, distributed content, and a global, cross-platform network of reporters, editors, video producers, illustrators, and more.
BuzzFeed had hired an editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, at the start of 2012, and that fall the longform (aka features) vertical would launch under features editor Steve Kandell; it was due time, the powers that be had decided, for a copy editor. Luckily for me, I'd projected just the right combination of strangeness and competency during my interview and was selected to fill the role, despite the copyediting test consisting primarily of a story about Mitt Romney — the problem being that I didn't know anything about politics, and still don't. (Sorry, Ben, please don't fire me.) My interest in politics peaks during presidential elections, but even then, it's marginal at best, so I was worried I'd missed something huge, like affiliating someone with the wrong party or not realizing some fancy political term was entirely made up. ("Just because I don't use assemblybustering regularly doesn't mean other people don't, right?" — me, asking myself this question during the copy test.) Such was not the case, miraculously, and I was put to work as BuzzFeed's copy editor several weeks later, where my coworkers were foolish enough to trust I wouldn't butcher their finely tuned prose or routinely ask them ignorant questions about the words sitting in front of me. I like to think I've come through roughly 75 percent of the time.
With no one IRL to show me the ropes during my first week, and little training in place for new hires (even less so when I was being trained via screen, in the middle of a hurricane, a needy cat meowing furiously by my side), I improvised. I started poring through the homepage, making edits on stories I thought were interesting enough to click into. I made the choices I thought were best, with little to no pushback (mostly due to little to no oversight); everyone else was just trying to figure out this BuzzFeed thing too. Said process would go on to be the foundation for shaping my attitude toward copyediting the site in the years to follow: Using your best judgment and your experience to guide you, do what you think is right and then ask other people if they agree. If they say yes, cool. If they say no, work something out together that seems most appropriate.
The first style call I was asked to make was one of utmost importance to our nascent food section: how to spell the abbreviated form of macaroni and cheese. I settled on mac 'n' cheese, because theV is cuter than an ampersand, and it signifies that letters have been elided on either side of the n. I did not consider and an option; when spoken, the abbreviation of this delightful dish typically loses any inkling of a d sound. The conversation with our food editor at the time went like this:
how do you want me to write down mac and cheese like should I say macaroni and cheese every time
ME: hey! maybe mac 'n' cheese?
ME: is that cool?
EMILY: yeah whatever you want!
Even in instances as petty as The Great Mac 'n' Cheese Call of 2012, I felt a supreme responsibility to put into place the most logical and appropriate language guidelines, given BuzzFeed's readership ("everyone on Facebook," as Ben Smith made sure to inform me during my interview). The site needed standards that accurately reflected the tone of its lighthearted and sometimes utterly ridiculous posts and engaged readers with the site's signature relatable, conversational tone, as well as rules that maintained the integrity of news stories — ones that wouldn't distract readers, pull them out of immersion, or cause them to question our authority.
All of a sudden I found myself tasked with the even more supreme responsibility of creating a style guide for BuzzFeed. The existing "style guide" consisted of roughly four lines on a bare-bones intranet page: It was composed exclusively of notes on formatting numbers and a rule that the first line of a dek — i.e., the typically one- or two-sentence subheading that expands on or supplements a headline — is always in boldface. (That rule has since been overturned, as the site's content evolved and deks generally got shorter.) With a two-and-a-half-week trip to Thailand looming in January 2013, I had a non-negotiable deadline; I had to pull it all together by the end of December. I consulted style guides from prior gigs (I had previously been the copy chief at Teen Vogue and had copyedited in both full-time and freelance roles for a host of national magazines), asked former coworkers to send me additional style guides for reference, and pooled all my resources within the company: some style help from the music editors, recipe-formatting thoughts from the food gang, language suggestions from the LGBT section's team. I used The Associated Press Stylebook (APS) and Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) as our overarching style manuals and Merriam-Webster.com (which I'll refer to in all instances going forward as MW) as our dictionary, noting exceptions and making decisions on the issues on which these reference materials had conflicting (or no) advice.
Within two months of my start date, BuzzFeed's one-woman copy department had sent along a five-thousand-word first draft (it has since quadrupled in volume) of the style guide to the site's editor-in-chief, executive editor, and editorial director. There were few revisions: The big ones were an executive decision to lowercase internet, because, well, capitalizing it looked weird (a guiding principle I would go on to use regularly, and with much success, when making style decisions across the board), at a time when the prevailing style guides calling for a capital I, and my editor-in-chief's insistence to pluralize M.D. as M.D.s instead of M.D.'s, despite how much the sight of that made me want to jump from a multistory building (I made sure to always avoid a situation in which this was the only option, until we revised our rule to go sans periods in MD and similar constructions). APS finally came around on the lowercase internet (and web) front in 2016, but nothing looks as good as smug feels, so never forget that BuzzFeed did it first, way back in 2012. The staff's collective gut instincts on which words have entered common usage and can be justifiably lowercased have been pretty on point in the time since.
Over the next year, as the company expanded and outgrew yet another office, we continued to add and revise and delete and revise until we were secure that this fully blossomed flower was a version of a guide that accurately represented our ethos and our standards and our tone — and one that covered all the content we published, which was challenging, because that translated to, well ... virtually everything. We added sections about race and ethnicity, mental health, and our very transparent corrections policy, among other things, taking suggestions from a majority of the editorial staff and adding entries based on FAQs. Some of my favorites include come (verb); cum (noun — omg, yes, this is really here); Juggalo/Juggalette; and, just to settle a long-standing internal battle, our only entry specifying pronunciation, GIF/GIF'd (as verb), GIFs, and GIFable (pronounced "gif" with a hard G, NOT like the peanut butter, Jif). And let's not forget the style guide's one true Easter egg: updog. ("Nothing, what's up with you?") Thank you, internet oddball Katie Notopoulos, for asking for spelling clarification on this one.
Ask and you shall receive, dear coworkers.
In February 2014, after copying and pasting this internal document into the CMS (that's content management system for any of you 'net n00bs), and, with some polishing help from my now deputy copy chief, Megan Paolone, and at the instruction of Ben Smith, I hit "publish" and sent it off into the abyss. I'd been very vocally hesitant to make it a public document — coming from a magazine background, I thought the idea of publishing a publication's internal style sheet seemed bizarre and entirely unnecessary — but my reluctance would soon be proven shortsighted. For some reason NPR and a host of other media outlets wanted to interview me about it, which was cool but unexpected. Never see a style guide before, weirdos? I remember thinking. It just has a few offbeat entries. What's the big deal? Nevertheless, it resonated with journalists and non-journalists alike, and while, of course, sacrificing anything word-related to the internet gods puts one risk of being mercilessly scrutinized by trolls, language nerds, and miserable humans alike, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
The abundance of publicity around "the internet's first style guide" was rooted in the plain fact that nothing like it had really been created on that scale before. Plenty of unconventional news sites, like The Onion, for instance, have similar guides typically circulated among editors internally, but to publish such a style sheet conveyed a sense of authority that BuzzFeed felt poised to make, in a "We're not always super serious about ourselves and sometimes you need to be flexible and break the rules and maybe you should take a cue from us" sort of way. There's certainly value in pragmatic style advice you wouldn't find in APS or a standard dictionary, about the kind of language people actually use in real life and on the internet — language that often consciously breaks the rules for a specific intent. That value came into perfect focus when someone sent a BuzzFeed editor a picture of their journalism course syllabus from the University of Illinois in which the BuzzFeed Style Guide had been included as recommended reading.
On a personal level, by way of creating the style guide, I've learned a lot more about myself and the values I hold and hope to instill in others. I've always followed the rules, but from a safe distance, so as not to be completely stripped of my ability to see them critically and to reshape them into what best fits the situation if need be — in the name of both practicality and fun. This has been a running theme in my life. At age thirteen, I was salutatorian of my junior high school class but dated a boy behind my parents' backs (he smoked pot!); I went to the top-ranking specialized public high school in New York City but got my first tattoo at seventeen with a fake ID; I graduated from NYU magna cum laude but was an avid underage drinker and recreational drug user. Learning was important, but — cornball alert — enjoying and finding meaning in life, even when it meant breaking the rules, was important to me too. And that same ideology, in a sense, is what helped me to shape the BuzzFeed Style Guide and approach the art of copyediting in a way I had never quite done before. It's fine to flout "the rules" when you have a solid understanding of what the rules are and a calculated reason for doing so — for tone, for humor, for readability. Blindly following the rules every day does no one any favors and often leads to resentment and frustration when writers point out that a certain phrasing looks odd and you agree but shrug your shoulders and point, with exhaustion and defeat in your bloodshot eyes, to the yellowed AP Stylebook tethered to your desk.
This, by far, as been my greatest compliment to date:
[TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE]
Petition for buzzfeed to stop saying 'yas'
According to our [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE], the correct spelling is "yaaass."
Your style guide reads like it was written by a guy who had way too much cocaine one weekend and an unlimited data plan ...
Language Is Alive
There is no such thing as correct style. And sometimes there's no such thing as correct spelling.
If these notions are not inherently horrifying to you, congratulations! You've picked up the right book. And if you think diagramming sentences is a pastime reserved for losers, we're going to get along very well on this journey. But if you prefer your grammar rules packaged neatly in a little box filled with etchings in stone rather than as wads of Silly Putty, you may be moved to tears — and possibly violence — as you attempt to get through these pages in one piece. I'll argue that this book is for you too, and will save you from the sordid path of a misguided prescriptivist's lifestyle. (I know, I know, the prescriptivist-descriptivist binary is a false one, but more on these distinctions later, if the first part of this sentence didn't already catapult you into an intensely deep sleep.) Accepting language as malleable is deeply liberating, and I highly recommend it. As a copy chief, when faced with questions about gray-area style choices, I have been known to regularly tell editors, "Just follow your heart," because I am a commitment-phobe when it comes to language — and because tone, voice, and readership often weigh more heavily than any one page of your tattered old copy of the Elements of Style does.
Change is, after all, what keeps a language in business. "The moment English stops changing, it's dead, it's Latin," as Katherine Connor Martin, head of US dictionaries for Oxford University Press, said valiantly at the 2015 American Copy Editors Society conference — a delightfully nerdy gathering of descriptivists and prescriptivists and people with unflappable, aggressive feelings for or against the Oxford comma (for the record: big fan here) — and as I breathed deeply and counted from one to ten to stop myself from bum-rushing the speaker with hugs and sobs.
And the pace at which this change takes place has never before in the history of the English language escalated as fast as it has since the internet took center stage. The web is often (though not always) where this evolution begins: It's where insidery language is instantly available to a wider group of people. It's where fandoms come together to create and use both generalized slang, like ship and stan, and more specific terms, like Neville Longbottoming. It's where grandparents are reading the same Facebook feeds as their grandchildren, wondering what, exactly, bae means. It's where a limitation of characters has perhaps led to the modern tendency to omit the word of and the article after the word because (either that or people are just getting lazier or there's a more prevailing urgency to seem funnier and on trend), so phrases like because internet are used playfully with abandon. And this technology is the driving force behind the English language becoming even more ubiquitous across the globe than it already is. On a visit to China, for example, copy editor Paul Chevannes observed that "English slang was commonplace: bye-bye, okay, cool. And English tech terms were everywhere: Internet, email, iPhone, iPad, selfie, selfie stick, PDF, download, upload, chip, WiFi, smartphone."
Excerpted from "A World Without "Whom""
Copyright © 2017 BuzzFeed.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Birth of the BuzzFeed Style Guide 5
2 Language Is Alive 13
3 Getting Things Right: The Stuff That Matters 36
4 How to Not Be a Jerk: Writing About Sensitive Topics 59
5 Getting Things As Right As You Can: The Stuff That Kinda-Sorta Matters 80
6 How Social Media Has Changed the Game 153
7 "Real" Words and Language Trends to Embrace 193
8 How the Internet Has Changed Punctuation Forever 239
9 From Sea to Shining Sea: Regional Stylistic Differences 271
10 At the Intersection of E-Laughing and E-Crying 289
11 Email, More Like Evilmail, Amirite? 300
12 We're All Going to Be Okay 309
Appendix I The BuzzFeed Style Guide (US & UK) Word Lists 314
Appendix II Terms You Should Know 347
Appendix III Headlines on the Internet 349
Appendix IV Editing for an International Audience 356
Additional Quizzes 364
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