News organizations’ style guides, along with fusty cousins like dictionaries and encyclopedias, don’t have a reputation for being super-casual or quick to adapt. The New York Times, for instance, made the decision to get with what the kids are doing and drop the hyphen from email just four months ago. But the situation is different over at BuzzFeed, a media site that this week compiled a long list of reasons grilled cheese sandwiches are better than boyfriends.
On Tuesday, the irreverent outlet published its internal style guide online. Many of the entries are funny in a bathetic way, mixing serious rules that BuzzFeed writers must follow with words one might find in the tweets of a mouthy tween (see: the instruction to always hyphenate d-bag). And because the outlet is so purposefully conversational and current, many of the entries also reflect zeitgeist-y language trends. Here are six lessons about communication these days that we can take from the rules:
We’re regularly writing out things we never did before.
Social media has helped inspire informal communication on an unprecedented scale. “For almost its entire history, written language has really had this weird bias, where it’s only used in formal situations,” linguist Jacob Eisenstein told TIME for a story on Twitter. “What social media has done … is taken a lot of the very informal peer-to-peer social interaction that might have been almost exclusively spoken in the past and put it in a written form.”
In daily life, for instance, we now regularly make decisions about how to transcribe our laughter in texts or tweets, a task our forefathers didn’t confront. And because there are no established English rules about when to use lol or bwhahaha, BuzzFeed’s guide includes norms for writers: Use haha. Also, use jeez, not geez. Use commas either side of like when written in sentences such as, “Kim was, like, super jelly of Khloe.” And use yaaass, with exactly three a’s and two s’s.
Technology companies-turned-verbs dominate our conversations.
The guide includes mandates that “Facebook” is always capitalized, whether used as a noun or a verb (“I’ll Facebook you lates.”), as is talk of “Instagramming” things. Google gets a cap as a company but a lower case g as a verb (“I googled you already.”). And there is even an entry for Vine, Twitter’s one-year-old video posting platform, which is always capitalized (“I am Vine-ing. How are you?”). Our conversations have long been occasional commercials for non-tech products too—we “Swiffer” floors and “FedEx” packages—but they’re not in BuzzFeed’s rulebook, presumably because they don’t come up often enough to warrant special instructions.
We’re in the midst of a suffix-fest!
If there were a class on snarky writing, a surefire lesson from 2014 would be mashing man– or –ass or bro– or –shaming with pretty much any other word. BuzzFeed has an entire section on combining forms. In the entry for –fest, the style gurus explain that “most combining forms should be closed up: lovefest, puppyfest, etc.” The –shaming words, however, such as slut-shaming, fat-shaming, and body-shaming, should be hyphenated. Or, one assumes, the copy editors will start style-shaming.
Some old-school grammar rules still have clear staying power even among the young and hip. Some not so much.
While the trusty AP Stylebook expresses solidarity with English teachers by stating that farther should be used for distance and further should be used for time or degree (“He went further back into his mind.”), BuzzFeed doesn’t bother to make a distinction. The editors do, however, take the time to outline the old rule about when to use less and when to use fewer. The editors note that the guide is not meant to be comprehensive and that AP’s style is preferred, but the selections they include suggest which rules are most important to follow in their bullpen. And that reflects rules that may be inching toward the wayside, or not budging a bit, at large.
The ongoing national conversation about LGBT rights isn’t so simple to talk about.
The BuzzFeed guide dedicates three times more space to “LGBT” terminology than it does to dates, going beyond rules about how to refer to same-sex marriage (never gay marriage at BuzzFeed) and into less-worn territory. “Always use a transgender person’s chosen name,” the rules read. “Avoid: ‘transgenders.’” And so on. When Chelsea Manning came out, many news outlets made public statements about which words they would use or wouldn’t use when referring to transgender individuals, but many people on the street have never even considered navigating that linguistic territory.
Language isn’t going to hell because of the Internet.
The BuzzFeed style guide, which echoes style inspired by and used on the Internet, may have entries that you wouldn’t want to explain to your grandma, from the aforementioned d-bag to bitchface to Juggalo. And there are terms that would probably get the red-pen treatment at school. But the fact that the company has employees sifting through articles to make sure everyone writes bats*it in a uniform manner shows an enduring desire to take language seriously, even among those who may approach public discourse more casually.
This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.