6 Questions With Former BuzzFeed Copy Chief Emmy Favilla: Transcript

The full conversation with Emmy Favilla, former BuzzFeed copy chief and author of ‘The World Without ‘Whom’.’
Emmy Favilla Transcript

This is the full transcript of our interview with Emmy Favilla. To read the condensed version, click here.

BABBEL: All right. So let’s get started. When did you first become interested in language and how did that happen?

FAVILLA: I think, 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 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, which at the time there was no digital journalism track because that was in the early aughts, and I feel like the internet was kind of still this strange thing, and we weren’t sure where journalism was going to fit into that.

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 I remember everyone … not only did no one take classes on Fridays, but to take a class at 8:30 AM on a Friday was like, “What are you even doing?” You know? 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 magazine, independent magazine, that was only around for a couple of years called Grace woman’s magazine. And it was a fashion and lifestyle magazine for the “real” woman. They included women of various ages and sizes and demographics. And 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.

They had a freelance copy editor come in and I sort of just asked, “Hey, can I help you out with this?” And she realized that I was pretty good at it, so I would help her copy edit the magazine. And then I had another internship at Stuff magazine (RIP). It’s just so sad when I look back at all the magazines that I worked at, how most of them aren’t even around anymore. And it’s only been less than 15 years since I graduated college. It’s just like, oh, God, just a graveyard of print magazines.

I worked at Stuff magazine as an intern and that was really fun. That was the last internship I had before I graduated college. And my manager at the time was the copy chief and she knew someone who was managing a position that I would wind up getting after I graduated, at Seventeen Magazine, as a copy editor. And she was like, “You know, if you want, I can give you our copy test and see how you do.” And she was sort of my mentor in that way and she sat me down in a room, she gave me the magazine’s copy test and then she went over it with me and she was like, “Wow, you know you did really great and here’s what you missed,” and so forth. And then I started helping her with copy editing at Stuff.

And it was really just copy editing sort of just fell in my lap in a way, and I was interested in it and I was good at it, but I never really thought, “Hey, you know, I’m going to make a career out of this.” It was sort of an entry point into the magazine industry. And I got my first job, my first full-time job at Seventeen Magazine as an associate copy editor. And it was fun and I was also writing a little bit for the magazine, but I never imagined that it would be a track that I would pursue all the way to creating a style guide for BuzzFeed and writing a book about it. And yet, over the years, when it’s something you do day in and day out, you can’t help but sort of be immersed in it and want to do more research about linguistics and grammar and, you know, lexicography and that sort of stuff.

And I think it all just happened organically. And I think that a lot of it also, I mean … you can tell me if I’m rambling and stop me at any time here.

BABBEL: No worries.

FAVILLA: But, yeah, I think also I don’t know if there is some like subconscious element here, but my father’s native language isn’t English, he was born in Italy. And my mother was born in New York, in Brooklyn, has a very thick New York accent. I think I mention this in the book that she sort of sounds like The Nanny. I think I made a conscious effort to not sound like her because I feel like there is 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. So looking back I never actually put two and two together but that could have been a part of it as well. So, yeah, you know, a lot of factors came into play.

BABBEL: So why in this book did you single out “whom” for the title? Was it just the name or do you have a personal vendetta?

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 and rules, grammars rules, language rules that have always been considered to be black and white, hard and fast rules, those things are … you know 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 change, we should be questioning these things.

And “whom” is a great example of that. Because in casual conversation with our friends, I think most people, when they hear a “whom” interjected, even if it’s being used correctly in the objective case, it can sometimes sound a little jarring or pretentious. And of course this is all contextual. Sometimes it’s just fine. But I thought that that was a great representation of the idea that sometimes the rules aren’t always applicable to modern day speech and writing.

BABBEL: “Whom” also seems like a pretty common target lately just because it’s so hard to learn when you’re young. And also, I don’t know if you’ve seen on Twitter how people use “whomst” now to make fun of it.

FAVILLA: Oh, my gosh. Yes. As I mention in the book, there’s nothing worse than using whom incorrectly. Not only do you sound pretentious, but you’re also incorrect and it’s sort of like, no one’s going to question you if you use who. If you use who in the objective case, it sounds natural and it’s not, I think it’s something that we need to start, that we have started warming up to. But there are sticklers who aren’t quite there yet.

BABBEL: Yeah. Why do you think that people are so drawn to like more prescriptive guides like The Elements of Style? Is it just among older people? I feel like some people my age are still, like they prefer just hard and fast rules.

FAVILLA: Right, yeah. I think that there’s something comforting about having these style guides and knowing that the idea that there is an answer to your grammar questions and 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, we’re 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, yeah, just the fact that English teachers and 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 and trends. 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.

I think I want to say that younger generations, millennials and such are not as bonded to the idea of AP Style Book and Strunk & White and all of these guides ruling our language with an iron fist. But I don’t know. It might differ based on your background, based on your industry as well and that sort of stuff.

BABBEL: So, what was the biggest style complaint that BuzzFeed would get, like for something that people really seem to resist?

FAVILLA: In terms of our editors and writers or things that our audience would point out?

BABBEL: I would say the audience.

FAVILLA: That’s a good question. I will say I think that a lot of our conversations about how to appropriately phrase language dealing with disease, disability, the more potentially sensitive topics. Race and ethnicity, LGBTQ topics, things like that, I think a lot of those discussion 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.

So we stick to a person first language when we discuss disabilities. So meaning we wouldn’t put the disability first, we would put the person first. Like 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, of course, there are people who are saying that a person with a disability rather than a disabled person. 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 they feel 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.

So there a lot of conversation with that back and forth. And specifically with autism as well. Autism has always been our exception to that one rule where we do use autistic person rather than person with autism because we had a lot of commenters from either parents of autistic children or autistic people themselves or people who are advocates for organizations and autism awareness and things like that. And they were very adamant about the fact that autism is such an integral part of the person’s identity that they should be referred to that way. And of course the argument could be made, well why only autism then?

I think that comments and complaints about those sorts of language choices come up very often. I think that it’s great because we can further these conversations and we can talk to the people who are dealing with these experiences and people who belong to demographics that we may not and lend more insight into that sort of stuff. So that’s been a pretty interesting learning process and yet something that is so specific to editing and writing in the digital age, that you can just have these conversations back and forth on Twitter, in the comments sections in the stories themselves and so forth.

BABBEL: That ties into a question that I have about person-first language, which was: Do you think being aware of this language is helping to create this societal change or is it more just this is kind of a side effect of this larger social movement?

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 things and the way that you 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. And depending on the people that 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 respective language. Always talk in respectful language.

BABBEL: You talk a lot in the book about how quickly language changes in this age of the internet. Have you seen any style changes say between like when you finished writing this and now?

FAVILLA: Oh my gosh. I was not aware of how drawn out the book publishing process is. And coming from BuzzFeed where everything is moving at an accelerated pace and you’re told to write a story and have it up within an hour, it was a real, it was real interesting. It was going to be dated regardless, that was inevitable. Whenever you’re writing any sort of style guide that’s in print it’s going to be dated at some point, but how soon that it would become dated was the issue. So I tried not to include a ton of super specific references.

I wrapped up writing it in like mid-2016, so a lot changes in two years. But in terms of style specifically, I mean, maybe there are a couple of things in like the word list that we’ve come around on and changed, you know, to one word or two words and things like that. But I think the general style guidelines have all pretty much stayed the same. I think that there are some references to memes that are maybe a little bit dated, but it’s still a fun snapshot of the way things were three or four years ago.

BABBEL: That’s a long, long time ago.

FAVILLA: Yeah. I don’t know if there’s anything necessarily that has wildly shifted since I wrote it.

BABBEL: So your former title was Global Copy Chief. And I know BuzzFeed publishes in a few different languages now. Did you have any role in the style guides of other languages?

FAVILLA: No, unfortunately, that did not fall under my purview. As global copy chief, I was really responsible only for our English language editions. So I managed our UK copy desk. We also had one copy editor in Australia. Well, have, he’s still here. And I would consult on any content coming out of our India bureau. But, yeah, only the English language editions. And then sometimes some of the international editors would come to me with questions. But I didn’t, I wasn’t responsible for what translated words made it into their editions and whether there were translations for certain words and so forth. So, yeah, just the English language editions.

BABBEL: Well I imagine it’s hard enough to keep just like British and American English somewhat in line.

FAVILLA: Oh, my God. Yeah, and it’s so funny because sometimes earlier on when we first started publishing out of the UK, there are some Britishisms … I lived in London for a little under a year, so I became a little more aware of these things. But certain turns of phrase, like “in hospital.” You know, when you read that you have to realize that there isn’t a word missing. They don’t say, “in the hospital,” they say “in hospital.” Little things like that that you sort of just kind of pick up after reading enough content coming out of the UK. We would have really interesting conversations with the UK copy editors. She’d be like, “Wait, really? That’s how you say things?” Or “That’s a slang word that you use?” So, yes, it’s pretty cool.

You think you’re all speaking the same exact language but there are so many nuances and so many slang terms that are different. You take a look at the Australia version of our style guide — which is just a fraction of the size of our main style guide — most of the entries in there are just slang terms. So I think that was created more for the non-Australian English speakers of the company to realize like, “Okay, yeah, this is …” Like “cossie” for swimming costume or bathing suit. That was a new one to me. There’s just like so many things that almost make it, it’s almost like a foreign language, you know?

BABBEL: Yeah. We just did a roundup of Australian slang and it’s just amazing.

FAVILLA: They have the coolest language I think out of any English language.

BABBEL: They use budgy smuggler for like Speedo.

FAVILLA: Oh, yeah. They definitely have the coolest language out of any English speaking country. They just abbreviate everything. “Chrissy pressy,” colloquial for “Christmas present.” And they call McDonald’s “Macca’s.”

BABBEL: So do you think any of the stylistically conservative publications like, The New Yorker comes to mind because they’re the reason why people say “whomst” now, will ever give up the ghost or is this just two roads diverged in the woods?

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 that’s their thing. But in terms of the larger stylistic issues, we’re seeing AP Style Book come around on a lot of these things. 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 just given the tone of a lot of our content we just gravitate toward the more conversational type voice. And, of course, with that come the loosened restrictions on language guidelines and language rules.

But 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, you know, 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. And 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 then just like the quick, funny, lighthearted lists or the quick story about how Lady Gaga was wearing heels when she was going hiking.

I think it’s also contextual based. Because, of course, if you are a publication that is only producing hard news, you know, and not the sort of lighter stuff that BuzzFeed also creates under our entertainment division then you might not necessarily have a reason to loosen up with regard to the rules.

BABBEL: Yeah. I like the Twitter account “New New York Times.” Have you seen that?

FAVILLA: I don’t know if I have. What is it?

BABBEL: They basically document the first time a word is used in the New York Times.

FAVILLA: Oh, that’s cool. I need to follow that.

BABBEL: So January 30th was the first time they said “subtweeted.”

FAVILLA: Well, that’s really interesting. And when it comes to terms, I think the biggest change that we are seeing is terms and phrases that are directly related to the internet, you know, things like that, like “subtweeting.” How do we verbify the forms of Facebook reactions like the “wow” and “sad” and distinguish between “like” and “love” and those sorts of things. I think language choices with respect to what is actually happening on the internet is where, regardless of the type of content you’re producing, I think those things are really important to stay on top of otherwise you will seem out of touch and outdated immediately. I hope the BuzzFeed Style Guide helps because I do think that we include a handful of internet-specific terms beyond just the silly slang words.

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