Languaging IRL: Buzzfeed's guide to grammar in the internet age

Buzzfeed's Global Copy Chief, Emmy J. Favilla, turned the company's style guide into a new book: 'A World Without Whom'. #LOLSob

This article was originally published December 1, 2017.

There was a time when the word adult was just a noun.

The same is true of the word dialogue and, unironically, the word verb.

But thanks to email, texting and tweeting, language is changing. It's becoming more informal and conversational. So now we're verbing our nouns and adulting and dialoguing to our heart's content.

Just because, say, we don't use periods at the end of sentences it doesn't mean that our language is deteriorating.- Emmy J. Favilla, author  A World Without Whom

Given the online influence on the way we use language, it's not surprising that the online media outlet Buzzfeed has embraced the changes.

In 2014, to mixed reception, Buzzfeed released its own style guide, crafted by the company's global copy chief, Emmy J. Favilla.

Favilla has now written a book on the topic, entitled A World Without Whom: The Essential Guide to Language in the Buzzfeed Age.

As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, updating the rules of grammar does not mean the death of proper language as we know it.

"Just because, say, we don't use periods at the end of sentences it doesn't mean that our language is deteriorating," says Favilla.

A New York Times headline from March 2017 uses the relatively new word 'adulting.' (New York Times)

Words to embrace

In her book, Favilla says that new words are being created and that we need to embrace those new words — even if they break the rules.

Languaging is a "real word, despite what the dictionary may say," says Favilla.

Emmy Favilla. (BloomsburyUSA)
"Part of [the] learning process, of course, is accepting that contemporary language is continually shifting," Favilla writes.

Words like adulting, GIFable and wut are all OK with Favilla, as is the increased use of like and random, as in: 'that's so random!'

"I can't think of any word I wouldn't open the gate up for, to be honest," says Favilla.

She says she's asked by often asked writers and editors, 'hey, is this a real word?' and Favilla responds with the example of the word adulting.

"We've been using that word for years now. We can read it. And the letters all make a sound that we understand," explains Favilla. "We all understand what the meaning of this word is."

Favilla says that print dictionaries simply can't keep up with the language changes in real time, so consulting a dictionary isn't always a solution.

"The dictionary is not the gatekeeper of our language."

A World Without Whom

When asked about the title of her book, Favilla sighs and says: "It's an antiquated word. No one likes using the word whom."

Part of the problem with whom is that people don't know how to use it properly, so it's often misused or not used enough.

It's just kind of an organic shift in our language and I kind of see it going the way of the word shan't.- - Emmy J. Favilla, author  A World Without Whom

Favilla quotes Lisa McLendon, a professor at the journalism school at the University of Kansas, who once told Favilla: "If you don't use whom, at least you won't be wrong and pretentious."

The comment has always stayed with Favilla, who notes that in casual conversation, most people are unlikely to use whom.

"It's just kind of an organic shift in our language and I kind of see it going the way of the word shan't."


But does losing certain words mean that we are losing what might be a rich part of our language?

"I don't think that whom is going to ever, you know, completely be eradicated," says Favilla. "But I do think that we are talking more informally, thanks to email, and tweets, and text messages."

She says the new norm of sending quick messages, often one line at a time, has contributed to a more relaxed approach to language.

"There's a vernacular. And so, I think for Buzzfeed, which publishes all sorts of content — in terms of tone, in terms of topic and who we are writing it for — it's really important to understand that different pieces require different approaches."

To hear the full interview with Emmy J. Favilla, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.