Emmy Favilla: A Lighthearted Approach to Language

photo: Taylor Miller

Emmy J. Favilla is the copy chief for BuzzFeed and the architect of its house style guide. Her first book, A World Without 'Whom': The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age, explores Favilla's and BuzzFeed's approach to language in the Internet era. Our review is below.

What prompted you to write a book about the BuzzFeed style guide and the changing world of language on the Internet, especially since the style guide itself is available online and constantly changing?

This is more a book about not resisting changes in language, which we're seeing happen organically online with BuzzFeed, than it is a style guide. I do touch on style issues with some of the specific guidelines I explore. But the book is an ideology, and a documentation of how language has shifted, with the exception of the word lists I include in the first appendix. And even those have changed: I started working on the book over two years ago and I've had to make a lot of changes along the way, even in the final round of edits. So it's both a record of how language has evolved and an exploration of the attitudes I think would be beneficial to have toward it. 

I love your common-sense (commonsense? common sense?) approach to copyediting: use your judgment, follow your heart, etc. Can you talk a bit about that?

A lot of that approach is rooted in the fact that BuzzFeed has a pretty lean copy desk. I know we're lucky to have one at all! But we're still a small team compared to the amount of content we publish every single day.

As I realized how much we had to deal with, I decided to stop worrying about a lot of these things. Who cares if you spell out the word okay or use OK instead? This is not going to stop the reader in their tracks! Or did someone use en dashes instead of em dashes in their whole article? I'm not going to waste my time changing every single one, when there are a dozen more stories in my queue for the day.

We do still have conversations about this stuff, as evidenced by the Slack and e-mail exchanges included in the book. The correct spelling of "doughnut" or "donut," for example, has become a running joke. Sometimes we're split down the middle and we figure that you can truly go either way. It's really more important to ruminate on stuff like "Is this an inclusive way to talk about all genders?" than "Does this comma go here?"

The Slack exchanges in the book are so entertaining: How did your colleagues feel about making recurring guest appearances?

All of my coworkers were really good sports about my including their e-mails, screenshots, Slack exchanges, etc., in the book. My sense is that they all seem pretty excited to be able to share our very nerdy everyday process. And it gives some context to the book and the process: this isn't just me sharing my crazy, radical opinions. These are real conversations, and they give a lot of background and support to the arguments I lay out. I feel very lucky to work with such intelligent and witty editors.

Do you consider yourself a linguistic or grammatical rebel?

I'm a rebel of sorts in the copy-editing world. I think a lot of people who work on the Internet overlap with my ethos. But there are certain ways in which I'm still a bit of a stickler: I don't think we should totally ignore conventions about grammar, punctuation, spelling and other things that make it easier for readers to understand a piece of writing.

What do you most hope people take away from the book?

I hope people read the book and feel a sense of relief and freedom from the sort of rules that have been ingrained in us since grammar school. I wanted to write a very non-academic, lighthearted rumination on language, and convey that people can agree or disagree with me and it's fine either way. I hope people step away with the sense that "I don't need to hold my breath and worry about where this comma goes."

Obviously, the book is intended to appeal mostly to writerly types: editors, bloggers, grammar nerds, English majors. But I hope it might also appeal to a broader range of people who are interested in how technology has helped move language along, and the shifts in it that are happening all the time. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

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