All about the baes

February 03, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 04:09 am IST

BuzzFeed’s chief copy editor, Emmy Favilla, on how language evolves every day and why it’s ok to skip some punctuations

A way with words(left) Emmy FavillaTaylor Miller

A way with words(left) Emmy FavillaTaylor Miller

At a time when grammar gurus are likened to linguistically-correct Nazis, BuzzFeed’s chief copy editor Emmy Favilla has come out with a book that throws caution to the wind. Depending on which side of the grammar bed you wake up on, A World Without Whom will either incense you or have you fervently nodding in agreement.

Favilla might not be a household name, but the style she came up with is. BuzzFeed was one of the firsts, if not the first, to lowercase internet in 2012 (the Associated Press Stylebook came around only in 2016). And in 2014, when BuzzFeed published the internal style guide she authored, Favilla thought it was unnecessary, although it was written for the internet age, tackling fun (when to use ‘?!’) and serious subject matter (it has a detailed subsection on how to write about LGBT and marginalised communities). But soon, a host of media outlets like NPR wanted to interview her, and the University of Illinois listed the guide as recommended reading for their journalism course.

A light-hearted take on communicating in the digital age, A World Without ‘Whom’ tells the story behind this handbook, gives us a peek into how the millennial media company communicates online and why Favilla, an unlikely grammar guru, thinks it’s important to rank punctuation marks in a world where social media rules language.

How didA World Without Whomcome about?

I hadn’t come across a book that explored language issues specific to the digital age. Given my role as global copy chief, I felt I was in a good position to write something that discussed grammar guidelines that feel antiquated, mindful language and using appropriate words when writing about certain demographics. Also, many writers tend to think that there are always hard-and-fast rules regarding grammar and language, and that simply isn’t the case. I wanted to explore why that idea isn’t something that should feel overwhelming, but instead should feel freeing.

Wait, can we still use ‘whom’?

You can say whom if you enjoy using the word and use it correctly. But no one is going to do a double-take if you use “who” in the objective case (ie, where “whom” is technically the correct option). In casual speech, I think it’s safe to say that most people use “who” more often than “whom”, as the latter comes off as pretentious or overly formal in certain contexts. It’s an organic shift that we can’t undo, so we need to roll with it!

What’s the idea behind ranking punctuation marks?

I originally wrote that list for BuzzFeed back in 2014. It was inspired by casual conversations within my team about which punctuation marks were better than others. The exclamation mark gets bonus points for being emotive, plus it’s the only mark you can use, aside from the question mark, to express a higher magnitude of emotion simply by using more of them.

Language is evolving at a constant pace, but how does one keep up ?

Dictionaries and old-standby style guides are, and will continue to be, essential resources for journalists and writers. The important thing is to realise that they are not the gatekeepers of language, ruling over it with an iron fist. They often can’t keep up with the change in real time, so take certain guidelines with a grain of salt, use your intuition and knowledge of how people actually write and talk. Ultimately, you want to speak the language of the reader and write in a way that doesn’t seem awkward, distracting, or out of touch.

Why should we care about language and its evolution?

A language that’s alive is always going to evolve. There is no use in holding on to outdated rules that don’t reflect present conversation. It’s also a supremely cool thing that newer additions to our language, like emojis and the ~quirky tilde~ are allowing for more nuanced expression that traditional punctuation marks can’t facilitate. Also, as a global society, we’re becoming more mindful of inclusive and respectful language, and that’s something that may change over time as well. As we’ve seen, for instance, with Latinx being the more recent gender-neutral form of its predecessor Latin@.

Why is punctuation serious business when it comes to texting?

Thanks to the line break, and the fact that we can send our messages piecemeal, one sentence or one word at a time, periods no longer play an essential role in texts and direct messages. We don’t need them to differentiate one sentence from the next. As a result, putting in the extra effort to add a period at the end of a sentence you’ve texted has the potential to come across as aggressive or very serious, even if that wasn’t the intention. Yes, millennials are killing the period, and it’s going to be okay.

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