I don’t actually remember a world that seriously included the word “whom”—but that’s not the point of Emmy Favilla’s provocative and jaunty romp through the dos and don’ts of writing for the internet (which gets the thumbs-up over “Internet”). As chief copy editor for BuzzFeed, Favilla’s at the sharp edge of online editing. There she was tasked with creating and maintaining a style guide that had a logical integrity (but also room for considered variation); addressed those language issues that
demanded a rethink; was attractive to readers; and, of course, encouraged them to click through to the all-important articles. “A World Without ‘Whom’” tells the story behind this handbook: the decisions, and how they were reached. The fast-paced, conversational tone gives the book a Chicago-Manual-of-Style-meets-cute-cat-video (aww) feel. Once you adjust to that, though, it also provides a fascinating examination of how a modern grammar guru handles the quandaries that arise out of the dialect of social media, at a time when we are afraid—or perhaps excited—that the way we communicate online may be re-engineering our language itself.
In fact, many of these stylistic issues are chestnuts, but they demand fresh answers for each generation. Some questions Favilla raises were being debated when I started working on the Oxford English Dictionary in 1976. We whispered in corners that “alright” might be an acceptable spelling of “all right,” and we hemmed and hawed over whether abbreviations should take points (“U.S.” or “US”), or if the possessive of “Euripides” was “Euripides’s” or just “Euripides’.” I have to confess, however, that I’ve since forgotten whether we ever thought of putting two spaces rather than one between our sentences as we typed happily away in those distant days.
But language is very much part of the culture of its day. Back when we were still living in the shadow of the postwar era, the rules were stricter and more religiously observed; you weren’t supposed to challenge time-honoured authority. But the internet was a product of that era, and of a generation that demanded a new order (or disorder). Breaking the rules was part of the game, and this book witnesses the latest wave of rule-breakers reaching their own adaptation of our changing lexicon. Favilla introduces us to the online punctuation police (“comma panic,” vanity capitalisation), helps us read between the lines in our inboxes (“the 48 most annoying ways to start off an email”) and steers us through the etymological minefield that is modern digital communication (“42 ways to type laughter”). She accommodates variation with alacrity, but generally advises consistency. In fact, she may be closer to the mainstream than she realises.
In some parts the book is a guide for the initiated, in others one for the outsider who is surprised to have landed in the online world. Despite her self-deprecation (she lives in perennial fear of “everyone in my office and my life discovering that I am a fraud”), Favilla is admirably suited to the “accidental livelihood” that has come her way at a fast-paced, high-energy digital news organisation. Once she acclimates to this new speed, she is well in command of the stylistic questions she encounters in her daily ride through BuzzFeed text. Although her research involves typing questions into Google and firing micro brief questions to her editing team and friends (“glueing or gluing … both look terrible but are acceptable per MW,” the in-group abbreviation for “Merriam Webster”), Favilla always balances the results against the established style manuals, sometimes finding them deficient and sometimes not. As her own enthusiastic interoffice emails often end, “Bests.”
John Simpson was chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary until his retirement in 2013. His latest book, “The Word Detective,” was published last year.