In the Internet era, does it matter if every news story or kitten listicle on a given publication spells “LOL’d” and “Wi-Fi” the same way?
BuzzFeed, among the most prominent of a new generation of news sites, publishes in-depth news reports as well as click-friendly quizzes. It was Emmy J. Favilla’s job to develop a style guide that covers both — a tough task, in light of how quickly language evolves today.
Favilla, the site’s global copy chief, is the author of “A World Without ‘Whom’: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age.” As English changes, Favilla is on the front lines. Ideas spoke with her about her book. The transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ideas: What’s the issue with “whom”?
Favilla: It’s pretentious. No one ever uses it. No one asks, “Whom is this for?” It’s like how “shan’t” went out of style after a while. I think we have to accept these sorts of things and not take it as proof that our language is deteriorating. Change doesn’t equal deterioration.
Ideas: You include four pages of ways to represent laughter. How do you decide between saying “ha” and “hahaha”?
Favilla: I’m a fan of “haha.” It’s more genuine. It’s easy. It’s what you actually sound like when you’re laughing in real life. If it’s really hilarious, I’ll do a “hahaha.” I think “ha” comes across as sarcastic, like a response to something that wasn’t really that funny. It has an undertone of snarkiness to it.
If someone responded to what I thought was a genuinely funny thing with a “ha,” I’d be upset. It comes across as maybe pretentious, even: “Oh, I’m going to acknowledge that what you said was only sort of funny.”
Ideas: You’re encouraging people to think for themselves about language. You can’t always appeal to a higher authority, and the higher authorities don’t always agree.
Favilla: There are certainly areas where black-and-white rules exist, but we’re seeing those situations dwindle. People get very caught up in Associated Press style and what “the dictionary” says, but a lot of these resources can’t keep up with the pace of change in real time.
Ideas: Is the constant evolution of language a good thing?
Favilla: Our world is constantly evolving, and it follows suit that our modes of communication would also evolve. It’s strange to me that people want to resist a lot of these organic changes in language. It’s a cycle that’s as old as time.
But because of technology, we’re seeing this at a turbocharged rate. I don’t understand the resistance to loss of punctuation, for instance, in tweets or things like that. It’s something to be celebrated, the fact that we have so many more opportunities for nuanced expression with emojis and various means of communication through social media — and it’s fun!
Ideas: How would you respond to people who say, “OK, language is evolving, so why should I even spell-check?” Why be consistent about anything?
Favilla: In professional writing and journalism, there is something to be said for credibility. There is a right and wrong way to spell most words. For some words there may not be, like, “doughnut” and “donut,” but those are exceptions to the rule. You need to prove that you’ve put in the effort to make sure these minute details wrap up nice and neatly. If you don’t, the reader may think, “If this person didn’t make the effort with using serial commas consistently, how am I going to trust that you did the actual fact-checking here?” It’s always going to be important in the world of professional writing and journalism, but when it comes to email or posts on social media, that’s not something we should get bogged down by.
Ideas: This is a very funny book. But in the chapter “How to Not Be a Jerk,” which discusses the language used to describe different demographic groups, I noticed a more serious tone. Why?
Favilla: The way that we talk about other people is important. We need to make sure we are respectful and up to date in terms of how we describe people we may not have the same experiences as. Language creates a social construct, so I do think it was appropriate to be a little more serious in that chapter. If we’re going to be anxious about anything language-related, it should be about these sorts of things and not “Are we using an en dash or an em dash?”
Ideas: “Whom” aside, what do you think is the dumbest language rule that people still think is important?
Favilla: I hate how hung up people get on using “impact” as a verb in the “to have a direct effect on” sense. I have a running joke with one of my co-workers in LA, who flags the word “impact” whenever she sees it. She says, “You really need to talk to these writers and editors and let them know ‘impact’ is not supposed to be used as a verb.” And, why? It’s the way we’ve been using it in both print and speech for some time, and you can’t backtrack. You can’t turn back time and say, “Hey, everyone, stop doing this thing you’ve been doing for the past 10 or 20 years.” Just let it go!
Ideas: What made you write this book?
Favilla: A lot of my inspiration came from being fed up with wracking my brain about all these trivialities. We were doing a lot of pieces like “Reasons why Texas is the best state.” Editors would always ask me, “Is it ‘reasons’ or ‘reasons why’? Isn’t ‘reasons why’ redundant?” But we talk that way, and it’s totally fine.
Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.