Luckily, one woman—Buzzfeed's Emmy J Favilla—has produced oneby Sam Leith / December 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Internet: capital I or lower-case I? Internet or internet? No doubt Prospect’s stylebook has a ruling on the subject. But it’s a matter of some pride for BuzzFeed’s copy chief Emmy J Favilla that back in 2012, when the Associate Press Stylebook and most other arbiters were still insisting on a capital I, she ruled that the word should be lower-case on the unimprovable grounds that “well, capitalising it looked weird.” Last year APS belatedly came round to her point of view.
Every style guide presents a set of rules and preferences—and those rules and preferences help to define a publication’s personality. Simon Heffer’s style guide for the Daily Telegraph, for instance, rules that “Christmas lunch is what most of our readers would eat, not Christmas dinner.” (Charles Moore’s previous style guide for the same publication, more inclusively, troubled to warn that writing that Leeds was “two hours away by train” would not be true for those of the paper’s readers who lived in Leeds.) BuzzFeed’s personality is millennial, internet-savvy and informal—and its style guide reflects that.
Favilla’s new book, A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age, is a discussion of how she arrived at her decisions, and how she sees the English language behaving online—which means that as well as ruling on the serial comma, she’s arbitrating on whether “butthole” should be hyphenated, why “Juggalo” deserves to be capitalised, the set responses to “updog” (“Nothing. What’s up with you?”) and the verbal usage of “Neville Longbottom.”
So here, presented in a style of yah-boo perkiness, is a dispatch from the frontline (or near to the frontline) of linguistic change. As has been widely remarked, the shift from print to digital media has accelerated changes in the norms of written vocabulary and style at a rate unprecedented in the history of the language. Print had more in the way of gatekeepers: the economics of the offline world meant that the most visible and far-travelling pieces of writing were likely to be books and newspapers, almost all of which had been edited and standardised according to one style guide or another. Anybody could write a zine, or circulate a samizdat document, but the high-prestige forms that influenced usage tended to be institutional products of one sort or another. Changes in spoken language affected them, but slowly.
On the other hand digital text—with its near-zero distribution costs, its absence of gatekeepers and its ability to travel virally—has changed the game. It reflects informal and spoken usage more, and it feeds on itself—distinctive spellings and jokes catch currency and become commonplace faster than you can spell own “pwn” or ok “kk.” As I think of it, linguists accustomed to tracking language change through the equivalent of a fossil record are now working on Drosophila melanogaster: usages emerge, become dominant and in turn go extinct in fruit-fly generations. This is, according to your taste, either colourful, exciting and fun or the beginning of the collapse into barbarism.
But whether you like it or not, it’s happening. And BuzzFeed, which has one foot in old media and one foot in new—which behaves, in other words, a bit like a newspaper but which patrols and reports on and participates in the world of memes and gifs and online nonce-words—therefore deserves our attention. And here, which you won’t find in Strunk and White, are sensible thoughts on stand-alone punctuation (!!!), the elision of “of” and “the” after “because” (because reasons), and the joy of online function shift (“dad” as an adjective, and so on).
The main “takeaway” or “learning” from Favilla’s work is one that applies to language in general: that “x looks weird” is a decent place to start from, particularly in an informal online context. Know your audience. Use “decorum”: fit your style to the occasion. And be consistent but not dogmatic. Or don’t even be consistent. Early on, she mentions that the BuzzFeed guide’s only pronunciation note rules that gif has a hard “g.” A quick google (lowercase “g”) discovers a BuzzFeed article on the subject headed “How To Correctly Pronounce ‘Gif.’” It was just an image of a jar of peanut butter (that is, Jif brand peanut butter). Well, as Favilla might put it, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.