The internet has had quite an effect on written language. As people have gone from writing letters to emails to texts to Instagram direct messages, they’ve become a little more lax in their writing. Some people cry out that this will lead to the downfall of language, but language is as strong as ever. One defender of the new English language paradigm is Emmy Favilla, the former global copy chief and current senior commerce editor at BuzzFeed.
Favilla started her career as a copy editor, and worked at a number of different magazines, including Grace Woman magazine (no longer published) and Seventeen Magazine. Several years ago, she joined BuzzFeed when the site was still young and became one of the co-creators of the BuzzFeed Style Guide, which gained attention all over the internet when it was first published in 2014. Along with the usual language guidelines about how to use punctuation properly, this style guide has more specific entries for how to style words like “ugly-cry,” “manspreading” and “hate-watch.” Among many writers, it’s a go-to document for knowing how to write about the internet.
In Nov. 2017, Favilla published A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide To Language in the BuzzFeed Age. In it, she talks about how the internet has affected language by inventing new words, changing the way we talk about disabilities and allowing anyone in the world to publish something that everyone else can read. We spoke with Favilla about this, and about how BuzzFeed style has evolved over the years.
1. When did you first become interested in language, and how did that happen?
FAVILLA: You know there wasn’t a period where I said, “Hey, I really want to study language and linguistics and grammar as a career choice.” It sort of just all happened organically. I went to NYU for journalism, so I got my undergraduate degree in journalism. We had to either focus on a broadcast journalism track or a magazine journalism track, because there was no digital journalism track in the early ‘00s and I feel like the internet was kind of still this strange thing, and we weren’t sure where journalism was going to fit.
So I took the magazine journalism track because I was interested in working in magazines. And I took a copy editing class, and I think that was sort of a pivotal moment when I look back on it. I took a copy editing class on Fridays at 8:30 in the morning and not only did no one take classes on Fridays, but to take a class at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday was like, “What are you even doing?” And everyone was like, “Wow, you must really like copy editing.” I just thought it was really interesting, and that sort of coincided with my first internship, which was at a very small, independent magazine that was only around for a couple of years called Grace Woman magazine. It was a fashion and lifestyle magazine for the “real” woman. They included women of various ages and sizes and demographics. It was a really small staff, and because of that I was able to get my hands into a lot of different aspects of the publishing process. And one of those was copy editing.
Also, I don’t know if there is some subconscious element here, but my father’s native language isn’t English; he was born in Italy. And my mother was born in Brooklyn, and she has a very thick New York accent. I think I mention this in the book that she sort of sounds like The Nanny. And I think I made a conscious effort to not sound like her because I feel like there are some judgments that can come along with having regional accents, especially New York accents. And I tried everything not to have any inkling of a New York accent. It still comes out sometimes when I’m angry or when I’m around other New Yorkers or when I’m drinking. But I think that was also part of it, too, just this interest in using correct language and speaking correctly and writing correctly. Looking back, I never actually put two and two together, but that could have been a part of it as well. So, yeah, a lot of factors came into play.
2. You single out “whom” in the title of your book. Was it just a funny name or do you have a personal vendetta against that word?
FAVILLA: I don’t have a personal vendetta against “whom.” I think that it is perfectly acceptable in academic and professional settings. We’re never going to say, “For who the bell tolls.” We’ll always be addressing our cover letters “to whom it may concern.” I have to credit my editor Nancy Miller for that because she actually came up with the idea for the title, and she just pulled it out of the text. In the introduction, I kind of mention that a world without “whom” is a world that I would love to live in. I don’t have a personal vendetta against “whom” and I don’t mean to single it out in a way that implies that it should be totally eradicated from our lexicon. But I do think that it speaks to the larger issue of the fact that language is changing, as well as rules, grammar rules, language rules that have always been considered to be black-and-white. We need to start being a little more critical of them and understanding that as our modes of communication change and the way that we speak conversationally changes, we should be questioning these things.
3. Why do you think that people are so drawn to more prescriptive guides like The Elements of Style?
FAVILLA: I think that there’s something comforting about having these style guides and the idea that there is an answer to your grammar questions; that there is a sort of yes-or-no rule, there’s a blanket rule here, you can consult something and find the answer that you’re looking for. And it’s something that even people my age, in their 30s, were taught was the standard in grammar school and in high school. And I think there is something comforting about having a yes-or-no answer to your question.
That was also part of the reason why I wanted to write the book, because I felt like a lot of writers and editors who had come to me with questions would be like, “Well, should we say ‘reasons why’ in a headline or reasons? Is ‘reasons why’ redundant?” And I think that it can be a little scary when you respond with, “Well, it doesn’t really matter.” You know? So I think there’s that comfort factor, and just the fact that throughout our education, we’ve been told that these are the rules. It’s really strange to me that everything in life evolves and changes, from the food we eat and food science and the clothes we wear, but language is thought to be this immutable thing that we can’t touch and is supposed to remain the same as it was 50, 60, 70, 100 years ago.
4. What was the biggest style complaint that BuzzFeed would get?
FAVILLA: I think that a lot of our conversations about how to appropriately phrase language dealing with disease, disability, things like that, the more potentially sensitive topics…race and ethnicity, LGBTQ topics — I think a lot of those discussions were spurred by commenters and readers. That’s such a cool thing that you can have this real-time conversation with your readers and that they have the ability to steer your conversation about appropriate language and respectful, inclusive phrasing.
We stick to person-first language when we discuss disabilities, meaning we wouldn’t put the disability first, we would put the person first. We’d use “a person with cancer” not “a cancer victim.” Things like that. Or not using euphemisms or anything that connotes pity, or that sort of thing. But then within the community of disabled people/people with disabilities, a lot of them argue for the opposite, meaning that it’s non-disabled people who are creating these rules because they think that a disability is something that shouldn’t identify them, when [the community] feels like it actually is an integral part of their identity and that there’s no negative connotation to it. It’s just who they are.
5. Do you think being aware of this language is helping to create societal change, or is it more that this is a side effect of larger social movements?
FAVILLA: I do think that language has the ability to create the social construct and the way that we use language can shift the way that you see and approach things. And I think it’s a symbiotic relationship, and it’s not just one way or the other necessarily. Sometimes there’s not even really a right or wrong answer, depending on the people who you speak to and their experiences and their thoughts. But I do think it goes both ways, and that language plays a huge role in creating the construct, and in shifting the way that we see the world and the people in this world and their experiences. That’s why it’s so important. That’s why I devote a whole chapter to how not to be a jerk when you’re writing and use inclusive language and respectful language.
6. Do you think any of the stylistically conservative publications like The New Yorker will ever start becoming more lax in their editing?
FAVILLA: You know, I don’t know. Is The New Yorker ever going to give up using a dieresis? No. That’s what makes them quirky and, you know, that’s their thing. But in terms of the larger stylistic issues, we’re seeing the AP Style Book come around on a lot of these things. So I think that’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And of course, they are pretty much the standard style guide for most print news publications and digital news publications. I think obviously, BuzzFeed is much more open to the change, and I think given the tone of a lot of our content, we just gravitate toward the more conversational-type voice. And, of course, with that comes the loosened restrictions on language guidelines and language rules.
I do think that it’s a shift that is going to happen gradually, but it’s going to happen. We’re already seeing emojis and hashtags used in print publications and in magazines and things like that. I think that the more conservative publications are going to be slower to adapt to the more millennial-leaning language changes, but I think it will happen. And it’s also very contextual because, and I bring this up all the time, people think “BuzzFeed,” and a lot of them don’t realize that the BuzzFeed umbrella includes BuzzFeed News, which is a separate division from the BuzzFeed entertainment group, and we have different voices and different teams writing different types of content. If you are talking about an investigative piece that is 8,000 words long about the injustices and abuses happening at a mental health facility, that doesn’t matter whether it’s written on BuzzFeed or whether it’s in the New York Times. Those sorts of stories are always going to adhere to the more traditional rules. Journalism is journalism and I think there’s a difference between those sorts of pieces and the funny, lighthearted lists or the quick story about how Lady Gaga was wearing heels when she was going hiking.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.