The Words They Are a-Changin’
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 MerriamWebster.com 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.”
Clearly, language use is always in flux, and there’s no way that every person will agree on every point. The hot debates can often be boiled down to an approach that Favilla returns to again and again: “Pick what looks best and is easiest to read.” She’s pretty mellow that way.
Still, she’s no softie when it comes to getting certain things right, or at least uniform; at one point, she delivers a nuanced and passionate homily on the proper use of the em dash. She also proves herself to be an invaluable source for understanding the emotional weight that punctuation can carry in informal, online conversations–an area that can be pretty opaque for older readers and writers. Knowing when and when not to use commas and periods (and emojis!) in these kinds of exchanges is an area of life presided over by millennials, and the over-40s would do well to listen to them. When Favilla tells you that signing off a chat with “Talk to you later” is “scary,” you should take her at her tongue-in-cheek word.
As we think about all this, it’s important to remember that “the language” we’re talking about, the one that is constantly changing, is the spoken language. Written language is merely a representation of the real thing. These days, though, we often “talk” by writing–in tweets, emails, texts, blog posts, chat programs, and so on–and these words can potentially be read by millions. It is because of this that Favilla predicts that many nonstandard spellings and uses will eventually become standard, simply because they are the ones that are seen more often. The author tells us that, with the use of tools like Google’s Ngram (an online search engine that charts the frequencies of any set of search strings) it’s possible to see how people are spelling words at different points in recent history, which in turn can show us how a new usage or even a misspelling can spread quickly and effectively replace the standard. She gives an example cited by the linguist David Crystal in an article he wrote for The Guardian. In 2006 there were “just a few hundred” instances on the internet of the word rhubarb being spelled as rubarb, without the h, but by 2010 the program returned 100,000 examples of rubarb. By 2012 the number had climbed to 750,000. Whether you find this fact interesting or horrifying, there’s no denying that change is afoot.
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. She writes: “…a reasonable person is likely … to employ a mix of the two approaches in their everyday standoffs with words.”
A World Without Whom looks almost as dynamic on the page as the excitable website Favilla copyedits: The text is frequently interspersed with screenshots of tweets and online chats, grammar quizzes of her own creation, and pictures of memes. The book also contains lots of lists, such as the hilarious list of British swearwords and a catalog of more than 40 ways to render laughter (haha, heh, lol, lolz, lulz, and lmao among them). The last third of the book contains the entire BuzzFeed Style Guide Word List.
In a book that’s already pretty exciting to language nerds, the sections dedicated to social media offer the most to get jazzed about. Favilla explains, for example, what Tumblr-speak is and how it works–essentially, how a popular blog platform has profoundly influenced the way people (some people, at least) communicate. This is deep-internet stuff, and some of it may not be particularly useful to someone looking for usage guidelines they can carry over into print. But that doesn’t mean that the new coinages and styles that are making an impact on–or, you know, impacting–our language and culture should be ignored.
Favilla’s writing voice, as we have already seen, is youthful and conversational, with many joking asides. There are, in fact, a few too many asides for this reviewer’s taste, and too often they are self-consciously cutesy or bold. It’s possible, for instance, that you’ll be a bit put out to learn that the author considers diagramming sentences “a pastime for losers.” Ouch!
Ultimately, though, her guide is useful–even essential–precisely because she is reasonable in the ways that matter. To hear her tell it, the best way to get through the day with your sanity and your sentences intact is to remain open-minded but sensible. And that sounds like good advice for most areas of life, doesn’t it?
–Katie Haegele, special to Utne Reader
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