The Words They Are a-Changin’

A World Without Whom: The Essential Guide to Language In The Buzzfeed Age

  • Favilla breaks it down like this. If an extreme prescriptivist is a person who thinks there are grammar rules that should never be broken, and an extreme descriptivist believes that correctness is relative and ever-changing, the wisest person of all will find a middle ground.
    Photo courtesy of Bloomsbury

You may have heard the rumblings already: “whom” is on its way out. On the internet, at least, it’s often teasingly rendered as “whomst,” and anyone who corrects another person’s use of the word will be roundly ridiculed. Since changes to the language can evoke strong emotional responses, the way you feel about this particular one might vary all the way from “It’s about time!” to “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

All this to say: When it comes to grammar, spelling, and usage, you’ll have to be at least somewhat cool with changes like these to properly appreciate this book.

Author Emmy J. Favilla is the former copy chief (and current senior commerce editor) at BuzzFeed, the website that started life in 2006 as a click-baity mess of listicles and other bored-at-work distractions and has evolved into a news site that takes itself a bit more seriously. (Though to be fair, “18 Tweets About Food That Will Make You Cry-Laugh” was the title of one recent article.)

When Favilla joined the media company in 2012, she was tasked with answering questions that were often hard to answer, such as, How do you spell I’mma, as in I’mma let you finish?. These necessitated research as well as lively and often funny conversations. She then compiled her decisions and created an in-house style book for the website’s writers and editors that has ended up serving as a sort of ad hoc guide for internet (lowercase, please) writing in general.

While her book will probably be most useful to people who need it for their own writing and editing, it is also an entertaining memoir of sorts. Since what we’re looking at is change in the making, Favilla’s professional anecdotes, whether you find them charming or not, are often necessary to explaining the style choices she advocates.

When making a case for these choices, some of which have been hotly debated, Favilla leans at least as heavily on grammar stalwarts as on her own experience and strong instincts. This approach both strengthens her argument and shows us that many of these questions are more deserving of an ongoing conversation than a set of iron-clad rules. She cites such sources as The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook, and refers to talks and interviews given by linguists. Delightfully, she also tells us that she has argued on Twitter with Merriam-Webster about some of the dictionary’s entries, since, as she points out enthusiastically, “we live in an age where we can literally TALK TO THE DICTIONARY.” In one instance, she wanted to know why “pickup line” was defined only as a comment a man makes to a woman, and the person running the dictionary’s Twitter account promised to look into it. Search the term on today and you’ll find this entry: “a prepared remark used by a person to start a conversation with a stranger they are interested in having a romantic relationship with.”

2/9/2019 2:05:48 PM

Language is constantly changing from Beowulf to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens and beyond. There is no stasis, no rules if common usage dictates. Two books by Bill Bryson with a scholarly but light-handed manner with lots of history thrown in are 'Made In America' and 'The Mother Tongue'. Must reads.

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