This is an excerpt from Quibbles & Bits, the BuzzFeed News copy desk’s newsletter. Sign up below to nerd out about language and style with us once a month!
Allow me to introduce the new and improved BuzzFeed Style Guide! The leading authority on the language of the internet now has a streamlined alphabetical format. Since the BuzzFeed Style Guide was first published in February 2014 — a bold decision by then–copy chief Emmy Favilla, since few organizations choose to make their internal guides public-facing — it grew to become a massive document that included an extensive list of terms followed by dozens of different topical sections.
So we've done what copy folk do best: We gave it an edit. In our new, simplified design, “Pornhub” and “porta-potty” are followed by the lengthier “possessives” entry. We’ve also added a fresh feature: a section at the top highlighting recent updates we’ve made to the style guide.
Our revamp also means the style guide is more compact and easier to scroll through. We realized most people navigate the style guide using the Find command (ctrl + F on PCs; ⌘ + F on Macs) to search for specific words or topics, so we now include alternate spellings — even if you type “health care,” you’ll land on our “healthcare” entry, which advises that it be written as one word, in all forms.
In addition, we include terms that we advise not using, like this guidance under “disability”: “Use nondisabled, not able-bodied, when referring to people who do not have disabilities.”
The “recent updates” section is something our readers have been clamoring for, and we agree that it’s helpful to see what might have changed since your last visit — especially if we’ve reversed previous guidance, like we did last month in the possessives entry I mentioned above. We often announce changes like this on Twitter, but they can be easy to miss. In this case, we had some pretty confusing guidance for whether to add an extra “s” after the apostrophe for proper nouns ending with an “s,” depending on whether they made an “s” or “z” sound. This exception often required us to say names out loud without necessarily reaching a confident consensus. We really struggled with Miles Teller’s first name, for example. One of our copy editors said, “I sat here saying ‘Miles’ to myself like five times to confirm it does indeed end in a ‘z’ sound. My fiancé came in the room and was like, ‘Have you gone crazy?’”
When we finally decided to strike this exception, you could almost hear our collective sigh of relief. Fun fact: We scrapped this once before in 2015 but reinstated it after a perplexing but vocal outcry from people in the newsroom. Let’s hope this time it sticks — but I’m steeling myself for another protest when more people see it included in our recent updates list at the top of the style guide!
This is a low-stakes example of how our copy desk works: We thoughtfully consider all language and style issues that people raise with us (via our @styleguide Twitter, email, or DMs; from BuzzFeed staff or the general public). When someone earnestly (i.e., not trolls or haters) asks us to reconsider our guidance or add something new to the style guide, we discuss it as a team. It’s an excellent opportunity to reflect on why something is (or isn’t) in the style guide. It’s also of paramount importance to us that the subjects of a story have a say in how they are described.
That includes many autistic and disabled communities — for example, if a person prefers the identity-first “disabled person” over “person with a disability,” we defer to their choice. Although copy editors crave consistency, it’s inappropriate — and potentially harmful — to impose a single overarching rule when it contradicts how a person identifies themself, and our style guide acknowledges and embraces those differences.
We also pay close attention to what people are talking about on social media, in publications and newsletters, and many other public forums. Take, for example, the “antisemitism” entry that we added last year. Before that, we’d followed from guidance AP and others that a hyphen should follow the prefix because “Semitism” is a capitalized proper noun. A viral Twitter thread made us reconsider — and additional research proved the fallacy of that construction. Within weeks, we’d added “antisemitism” to the style guide and written an issue of our newsletter explaining our decision.
Unlike conventional style guides, like the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, we can be quick and nimble and issue new guidance when news events require us to make style decisions swiftly. The size of the BuzzFeed News copy desk is small, but the weight that we carry is heavy: Our language recommendations have the power to end stigma rather than perpetuate it — and are inclusive and mindful of how terminology can affect individual readers personally.
In conjunction with our Quibbles & Bits newsletter — in which the BuzzFeed News copy desk has focused on topics like autism, the appropriation of Black culture, ableist language, body image, and reproductive rights — the BuzzFeed Style Guide not only notes how language is evolving but explains why it should change. We consider it a duty to amplify voices rather than follow an outdated and harmful status quo.
On the lighter side, we’ll still be your go-to source for language that people use IRL and online, like how to spell the slang form of semen (“cum”) and compounds like “shitpost.”
TL;DR (a phrase you should lowercase when it doesn’t start a sentence): We hope you love our redesign and check it often for updates. Let us know if you have any quibbles — and don’t forget to subscribe to our Quibbles & Bits newsletter!
What’s the Word?
pilcrow (pill-crow) (n.): a paragraph mark ¶. The word’s origins are as unusual as the word itself: According to Smithsonian magazine, it started with the Greek paragraphos (para, “beside” and graphein, “to write”), which become the Old French paragraph. But it didn’t stop there! It morphed into the French pelagraphe, then pelagreffe, before its 15th-century Middle English adoption as pylcrafte, which morphed into “pilcrow.” In French, though? Prepare for a shocking twist: It’s now pied-de-mouche — a reroute apparently based on the appearance of the symbol itself rather than describing its function.
Used in a sentence: Someone gave me a cake decorated with a pilcrow for my 30th birthday because they said I was starting a new paragraph in my life.