Critical Words

Tom Rachman reviewing A World Without Whom : The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeed age by Emmy J. Favilla

From “List of proof-marks, corrected proof-sheets and suggestions in regard to proofreading” by A.M. Smith. As cryptic as cuneiform to a modern writer?

As if to immunize herself against criticism, [Favilla] begins by announcing her paucity of qualifications; she is neither a lexicographer nor an expert in linguistics. Previously, she worked at Teen Vogue. “I am constantly looking up words for fear of using them incorrectly and everyone in my office and my life discovering that I am a fraud”, she says. But despite the tone of chirpy self-satire, what follows is a small revolution. “Today everyone is a writer – a bad, unedited, unapologetic writer”, she says. “There’s no hiding our collective incompetence anymore.” Unlike the language scolds of yore, Favilla embraces the new ways, punctuating her writing with emoji, inserting screen-grabs of instant messages, using texting shortcuts such as “amirite?” Hers is a rule book with fewer rules than orders to ignore them. Humans are gushing out words at such a pace, they can’t be expected to bother with grammar, she says. More important is to be entertaining, on trend, popular (neatly matching the corporate goals of BuzzFeed). “It’s often more personal and more plain-languagey, and so it resonates immediately and more widely.”

Rachman, a reporter turned novelist, wrote this for the TLS, which still has copy-editors (although it is a less pristine publication than it was when I first started reading it as a library worker 30 years ago).  Favilla  started as the copy editor for Buzz Feed (singular verb on purpose). They may now have a few more. Honestly, a bit hard to tell.

The review also covers Harold Evans latest book, Do I Make Myself Clear? Why writing well matters,  one of many to shelve in the bookstore section labeled “grumpy state of the language jeremiads.”  Evans, retired editor of The Times of London, is of course a grandee of old school journalism (imagine starting your career when writing for a newspaper meant manual typewriters, hot lead type, and Gregg shorthand for interviews). He is not sanguine about the state of the English language.

Rachman summarizing Evans’ case,

[Evans is] correct to diagnose trouble. Public opinion is frighteningly confused today, with many citizens opposing what they support. They’re for health care, but against the policy providing it. Bewilderment also warps discussion of gun control and Brexit and global warming, leaving those without scruples to spin, while earnest news sources mount their factual cases – and are snubbed. Manipulative language has been around as long as public debate. But today’s lies linger because the internet has scuttled credibility, placing heaps of alluring junk beside small piles of dry honesty.

I think he’s right, but I have a harder time believing it can change, or hasn’t always been latent in news biz. Freedom of the press, as William Randolph Hearst is rumored to have put it, belongs to those who have one. Now everybody does.

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