Emmy J Favilla’s A World Without “Whom” is as much about reinventing grammar as a witty insight into the internet generation’s mindset. In this excerpt from the book, she shares what happened after she first published BuzzFeed’s now-famous editorial style sheet.
In February 2014, after copying and pasting this internal document into the CMS (that’s content management system for any of you ’net n00bs)… I hit “publish” and sent it off into the abyss.
I’d been very vocally hesitant to make it a public document—coming from a magazine background, I thought the idea of publishing a publication’s internal style sheet seemed bizarre and entirely unnecessary—but my reluctance would soon be proven shortsighted. For some reason National Public Radio and a host of other media outlets wanted to interview me about it, which was cool but unexpected. Never see a style guide before, weirdos? I remember thinking. It just has a few offbeat entries. What’s the big deal?
Nevertheless, it resonated with journalists and non-journalists alike, and while, of course, sacrificing anything word-related to the internet gods puts one at risk of being mercilessly scrutinized by trolls, language nerds, and miserable humans alike, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
The abundance of publicity around “the internet’s first style guide” was rooted in the plain fact that nothing like it had really been created on that scale before. Plenty of unconventional news sites, like The Onion, for instance, have similar guides typically circulated among editors internally, but to publish such a style sheet conveyed a sense of authority that BuzzFeed felt poised to make, in a “We’re not always super serious about ourselves and sometimes you need to be flexible and break the rules and maybe you should take a cue from us” sort of way.
There’s certainly value in pragmatic style advice you wouldn’t find in APS or a standard dictionary, about the kind of language people actually use in real life and on the internet—language that often consciously breaks the rules for a specific intent. That value came into perfect focus when someone sent a BuzzFeed editor a picture of their journalism course syllabus from the University of Illinois in which the BuzzFeed Style Guide had been included as recommended reading.
On a personal level, by way of creating the style guide, I’ve learned a lot more about myself and the values I hold and hope to instill in others. I’ve always followed the rules, but from a safe distance, so as not to be completely stripped of my ability to see them critically and to reshape them into what best fits the situation if need be—in the name of both practicality and fun. This has been a running theme in my life.
At age thirteen, I was salutatorian of my junior high school class but dated a boy behind my parents’ backs (he smoked pot!); I went to the top-ranking specialized public high school in New York City but got my first tattoo at seventeen with a fake ID; I graduated from NYU magna cum laude but was an avid underage drinker and recreational drug user.
Learning was important, but—cornball alert—enjoying and finding meaning in life, even when it meant breaking the rules, was important to me too. And that same ideology, in a sense, is what helped me to shape the BuzzFeed Style Guide and approach the art of copyediting in a way I had never quite done before.
It’s fine to flout “the rules” when you have a solid understanding of what the rules are and a calculated reason for doing so—for tone, for humor, for readability. Blindly following the rules every day does no one any favors and often leads to resentment and frustration when writers point out that a certain phrasing looks odd and you agree but shrug your shoulders and point, with exhaustion and defeat in your bloodshot eyes, to the yellowed AP Stylebook tethered to your desk.
Published with permission from Bloomsbury