What is the appropriate way to style “binge-watch,” “celebricat,” and “Facebook-stalk”? These are just a few of the conundrums that BuzzFeed copy chief Emmy J. Favilla deals with on a daily basis. She shares specific examples as well as her overall approach to copyediting in the book A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age.
A World Without “Whom” is part style guide, part translation manual for internet-based writing. And, as you’d expect from the copy chief at BuzzFeed, it’s full of humor and amusing turns of phrase. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
“In terms of picking up a dictionary (lol, by which I mean, obviously, checking the internet) to confirm you haven’t made an egregious misspelling, by all means, yes, this is an excellent idea.”
The early parts of the book focus on why BuzzFeed created a style guide in the first place, some of the overarching philosophies that guide Emmy’s approach to writing and style, plus the rules that writers must follow, or as she puts it: “Getting Things Right: The Stuff That Matters.”
Later chapters cover more subjective topics like using inclusive and sensitive language, “The Stuff That Kinda-Sorta Matters” (this section includes advice on things like abbreviations, redundancy, italics vs. quotation marks), and tips on writing about social media.
One of my favorite chapters (the one where I found myself highlighting the most furiously) was Chapter 7, “‘Real’ Words and Language Trends to Embrace.” The chapter begins with this quote from David Foster Wallace:
“In the broadest sense possible, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader… there’s an electricity about it.”
Emmy then goes on to write:
“How do you form an electrifying relationship with your reader? By speaking their language! Not by using the grammar rules our teachers taught us in 1989 (sorry, Mrs. Burger) or pretending that people aren’t really saying things like ‘I forgot how to person.’ Wallace makes the point that it’s easier for teachers to make a sweeping statement rather than explain that when you get to the point when you’re going to write professionally as an adult, there will be exceptions…
Part of that learning process, of course, is accepting that contemporary language is continually shifting. At the most shallow level, people may be speaking and writing with brand-new words, derivatives of words, and even terms associated with the functionalities of new technology in ways they didn’t ten years prior—like adulting, shippers, right-swipe… And embracing and understanding these changes is key to communicating in ways that best resonate with various audiences.”
One of the big questions editors must face is whether to consider themselves descriptivists or prescriptivists. In Emmy’s words: “Descriptivists believe that language should be defined by those who use it; they observe and record, and so “correctness” is an ever-changing notion based on how people are writing and speaking at any given time… Prescriptivists, on the other hand… believe that there are rules you simply must follow; they were created for a reason, and when any of these rules are broken, it’s an inarguable mistake.”
The fact is that even if you don’t consider yourself an editor, as long as you are writing something that will be read by other people—whether that’s an email, a blog post, or a tweet—you do need to think about your style (or hire someone to do this for you!). As Emmy puts it: “today everyone is a writer—a bad, unedited, unapologetic writer.” So we all need to think about our approach to writing and style.
There are a number of reasons why I enjoyed A World Without “Whom.” The Amazon description of A World Without “Whom” refers to the book as “Eats, Shoots & Leaves for the internet age” and I love that—Emmy brings one of my favorite style guides into the digital era. (And if you haven’t read Eats, Shoots & Leaves, I’d highly recommend it. I believe it’s still highly relevant.)
As a professional writer and editor whose work mainly appears on the internet, I often spend time thinking about the issues this book discusses. It’s satisfying to see someone confirm many of the beliefs that I’ve personally held but never seen articulated in this way—that there are, in fact, some rules that must be followed, but that a lot of writing and editing is subjective and the rules in those situations (gasp!) don’t really matter.
The book is peppered with screenshots of Slack chats and email exchanges about matters such as “omelet” vs. “omelette,” “butthole” vs. “butt hole,” and “okay” vs. “OK” vs. “ok.” This brings back memories of my time on the editorial team at now defunct daily deals company LivingSocial. Yes, there was a time in my life when my work Gchats and emails centered on the right way to style things like “red-light therapy” and “lomi lomi massage.” In fact, it was one of my former coworkers from that team who sent out an email letting us know that we should check out A World Without “Whom.”
I think there’s a lot of great content in this book and I tend to agree with Emmy’s rulings on things that matter and things that don’t. When I first started reading it, I was worried that I may find the internet speak a little too overwhelming and annoying, but I think for the most part she settles on just the right amount. It’s entertaining but doesn’t distract too much from the points she’s making.
I did have a few minor quibbles with the book. There were a few sections that felt a little extraneous or incongruous to me, like the long list of “monsters the internet has spawned,” which includes pages after pages of phrases that BuzzFeed actually seems responsible for popularizing, like “All the things” and “I can’t even.” It’s a little unclear to me whether the section is intended to educate the reader on what these phrases mean or how they should be used or whether it’s intended to discourage people from using these phrases. Similarly, the BuzzFeed Style Guide Word List at the end is literally that—a list of words with no definitions. I suppose it could come in handy if you’d like to copy BuzzFeed’s style exactly, but I’m not really sure what the justification was for including it here.
Overall, I think A World Without “Whom” is a great guide to the basics of grammar, punctuation, and style. If you’d like to keep your writing up-to-date and get a sense of the principles that should shape your approach to writing and editing, be sure to check it out!
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash