This is an excerpt from Quibbles & Bits, the BuzzFeed News copydesk's newsletter. Sign up below to nerd out about language and style with us once a month!
Earlier this month, Cardi B sat down with Vogue for an interview that covered a bunch of topics. Among them: her new fast-fashion clothing line, the outfits she picks for her daughter, and her recent conversation with Sen. Bernie Sanders about minimum wage, climate change, and labor unions. When this conversation made it to YouTube, it was titled “Cardi B on Raising Her Daughter, Bernie Sanders, and Coordinating Outfits With Offset.” And all of a sudden, everyone online was a copy editor.
Just about everybody offered solutions, and some of them were helpful. A few people argued that this is a case for following AP style and abolishing the Oxford comma. (In your dreams.) Others said it was an issue with parallel construction: The title should’ve given Bernie a gerund (like talking with Bernie Sanders) to match raising and coordinating. Or that this was a punctuation problem, and the commas should be swapped for semicolons: “Raising Her Daughter; Bernie Sanders; and Coordinating…”
One troll suggested that to rid it of any ambiguity, all you'd have to do is tweak it to say “Cardi B’s Daughter, Whose Name Is Bernie Sanders...”
And several people advocated for swapping the order of the series, which, ultimately, was what happened. Today, the video title reads: “Cardi B on Bernie Sanders, Raising Her Daughter, and Coordinating Outfits with Offset.”
Phrasal ambiguity has been having a moment, and it wasn’t just Cardi and Bernie who were implicated, as several tweets highlighted:
There was this headline, about a UK hospital with a sandwich namesake, which inspired a post from a UPenn linguistics blog that drew tree diagrams to parse its dual meanings. The headline was later recast with the addition of one word. Then there was this ad tagline for the London-area transit system — which is both sentimental about how it’s nice to see friends and an interesting hypothetical about quantum physics. Or this headline about the US president’s health, which could be interpreted a number of ways. Sometimes the stuffy syntax of headlines makes for iconic lil’ turns of phrase. There are approximately a gazillion examples of this. In some circles, they are called crash blossoms.
But we’re not writing this just to tease others. We have certainly run into ambiguity in our own headlines before. Like this one, which forced us to ask ourselves: Who played Barb’s cup?
What's New in the BuzzFeed Style Guide: Impeachment Edition
As copy editors, we know there are certain names that no matter how many times you see them, you have to triple-check. (Scarlett Johansson, anyone?) Somehow this applies to ~everyone~ in the impeachment inquiry saga. This is in part because of the transliteration of some names from Ukrainian to English.
This led to several conversations with BuzzFeed News editors about the spelling of Volodymyr Zelensky. AP does Zelenskiy; the New York Times, Washington Post, and Kyiv Post do Zelensky; and the Ukrainian president’s passport allegedly says Zelenskyy. We're sticking with Zelensky, but it's been a journey. Also, please check out this impeachment guide because it’s great but also because we had to check so many names for it.
We also added a few other things to the BuzzFeed Style Guide in light of these proceedings:
- articles of impeachment (not capitalized)
- whistleblower (not whistle-blower)
- Kyiv (not Kiev): The Kiev spelling is transliterated from the Russian language, while Kyiv is transliterated from Ukrainian.
Here are the other newest words, names, and updated guidelines:
- butt-dial (all forms)
- FOSTA-SESTA (hyphen, not SESTA-FOSTA)
- first-term for lawmakers, not first-year or freshman
- commander in chief (no hyphens)
- Indigenous Peoples Day
- Say “he”/”him” pronouns and “she”/“her” pronouns instead of male pronouns or female pronouns.
- In place of homophobia, use anti-trans/anti-gay/anti-LGBTQ prejudice/discrimination/bias, etc.
- Ratings: Use figures for rankings and reviews: 4 out of 5 stars, 1-star Michelin restaurant.
- Close up most smart- technology compounds (smartglasses, smarthome, smartphone, smartwatch, etc.).
3 Language Podcasts We've Been Listening To
- The Allusionist: Helen Zaltzman’s linguistics podcast dives into all sorts of language queries and histories in a style both silly and informative. Check out this recent episode about Titivillus, the typo demon, perfect for this devilish month.
- Lingthusiasm: Hosts Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch, as the title suggests, share their enthusiasm for linguistics in this joyously nerdy podcast. They most recently contemplated why English vocabulary is so limited when it comes to describing smells.
- That’s What They Say: Available as a podcast, this weekly segment on Michigan Radio sees host Rebecca Kruth discuss with English professor Anne Curzan why we say the things we do. You can listen to them break down the difference between whistleblower and leaker in a recent episode.
What's the Word?
tenebrific (adj.) (te-nə-ˈbri-fik): We’ve come to the ~spooky~ time of year. Perhaps you’re looking for some vocabulary to slide into your scary stories or to describe the feeling you get when the days are shortening. The tenebrific, which means “gloomy” or “causing gloom or darkness,” weather these days can be a lot to bear — but all the better to stay inside and write through it! Tenebrific is the adjective borrowed from the Latin form tenebrae, which means “darkness” or “obscurity.” When capitalized, it indicates a church service that takes place in Holy Week during which candles are extinguished. The first known use of the adjective tenebrific was in 1785.
Used in a sentence: After we came in from the tenebrific street, the warmth and soft light of the house were welcome.
And finally, please, we implore you...read the M-W definition for the wave:
And let us know if you find a funnier piece of writing.