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!
Many people assume that copy editors spend all their free time scrutinizing others’ writing or speech. You might feel compelled to double-check your spelling before you text a copy editor friend or to ask them to look over an email before you send it. While we love to support the proper use of language, plenty of us are not always looking at the world through grammar goggles. However, we do have certain mistakes and misuses that make our heads spin, so we at the BuzzFeed News copy desk thought — just for fun — we’d share some of our biggest personal pet peeves! (Tag us @styleguide to share yours!)
Refusing to learn the keyboard shortcuts for en and em dash
If you’re a writer, you should know how to use hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes — following what your publication’s style guide recommends — and how to make them on your computer’s keyboard! (Em dash: option + shift + hyphen on Macs/alt + 0151 on PCs; en dash: option + hyphen on Macs/alt + 0150 on PCs; on smartphones, hold the hyphen key for the expanded dash menu.)
When “whether or not” is redundant
There are times it’s accurate to use “whether or not” — when it modifies the verb and stands in for “regardless” — but when people slap on “or not” every time they use “whether,” it drives me up a wall, e.g., I wonder whether or not you will take this pet peeve into consideration.
When people use the term “immaculate conception” incorrectly
In Catholicism, “immaculate conception” refers to the conception of Mary (Jesus’s mom) without original sin. However, people often confuse this term to be describing the “virgin birth” of Jesus, who was said to be conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit (i.e., no sex!!!!!!). When I see that usage on a TV show or in a movie — “Gee, it must’ve been immaculate conception!” — I get annoyed that no one double-checked the meaning.
Calling a Saturday Night Live sketch a “skit”
Listen, I’m not arguing that every three- to five-minute passage of time on SNL is a work of art (few are), but it’s a sketch show, not a skit show.
If you wouldn’t say it in your normal life…you probably shouldn’t write it. —Sarah Schweppe
Relying on Google Docs spell-check
Maybe the most useless tool from a company valued at a bajillion dollars, the Google Docs spell-check feature simply does not know what a typo looks like. It thinks “Dominaican Republic” and “heretosexual” look good enough. And it regularly puts a red squiggly line under words that are spelled correctly. It thinks this newsletter should be called Kibbles & Bits. (Woof!)
Using a possessive in the name of a piece of media
Brevity is key in headlines, and often you’ll see a story that says something like “Euphoria’s” Sydney Sweeney Just Grabbed A Prickly Pear Cactus, which most copy editors will change to something like “Euphoria” Actor Sydney Sweeney. But maybe any reader implicitly understands that the possessive is not part of the formal title; maybe this is pedantic. Euphoria already has a fraught relationship with the apostrophe. For copy editors, it can be a real Sophie’s Choice’s situation.
Determining whether to use italics or roman for a publication’s name
In 2017, we changed BuzzFeed style to use roman rather than italics for every news publication’s name. It was a practical decision, but also one that we made just to spare ourselves a headache. It had become futile to try to differentiate when to use italics from roman: What about news outlets that only exist online? Would you italicize Breitbart or Infowars? Would you style it that way for Medium as well as its subpublications? —Emerson Malone
Not only is it nonsensical to call something “Nipplegate,” but none of these more recent controversies ever come anywhere close to having the same gravitas as a sitting president ordering his cronies to burglarize and spy on his political opponents. (Pizzagate didn’t even happen for real, so it doesn’t count.) I feel like it cheapens how major Watergate really was. Just call it a scandal, friends.
Treating “the internet” like a monolith
“Taylor Swift posted a new Instagram story, and the internet is freaking out.” Did it, really? Sure, I might be glued to social media most days, but a tweet or Instagram post going viral is not the same as saying a majority of people or even a sizable minority cares at all about a new photo spread in a magazine or an embarrassing celebrity quote. It’s usually also very white American–centric when people frame things this way.
Using “which” when you mean “that”
“Which” introduces a nonessential clause and needs a comma in front of it.
The word “sherbet”
This asshole almost lost me my fourth-grade spelling bee and I still haven’t forgiven it. —Sydnee Thompson
Winnie the Pooh
Disney did us dirty by dropping the hyphens in Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh may not have had pants, but creator A.A. Milne did give him two hyphens in his name. Then Disney came along and took away his precious hyphens (and arguably his dignity by still depriving him of pants). This forces us as copy editors to try to ascertain whether a writer is referring to Winnie-the-Pooh from the books or Disney’s Winnie the Pooh. To quote Pooh: Oh, bother!
Related peeves include Paramount’s inexplicable decision to deviate from Elton John’s two-word song “Rocket Man” in the Rocketman film, Herman Melville hyphenating his book title Moby-Dick while the (slightly) eponymous white whale mentioned therein is Moby Dick (a choice!), and the shudderworthy original poster advertising the Steve Carell hitmaker as The 40 Year-Old Virgin.
Double hyphens instead of dashes
Conversely, there are cases where writers use too many hyphens -- specifically, two of them in place of an em dash (as I just did here to make a horrifying point). There are a variety of simple ways to avoid this old-fashioned offense, especially if you use Mac devices (see our related peeve above). A bonus? Using the proper dash gives you an extra character on Twitter.
Double spaces between sentences
Like double hyphens, we stopped needing two spaces between sentences when we graduated from monospaced typewriter characters. In this modern era of proportional fonts (both serif and sans), two spaces between sentences are an eyesore. Fortunately, our CMS corrects for them, but I still see double spaces every day in drafts, press releases, and texts from the Luddites in my family.
Lowercasing verbs in headlines and titles
Remember learning that mitochondria are the powerhouse of a cell? Verbs are the powerhouse of a sentence or phrase. Too often, however, they are confused with lowly prepositions, conjunctions, and articles — words that are traditionally lowercased in headings and titles. Like mitochondria, “is” may be tiny but it does a lot of work! Show some respect and capitalize verbs in these contexts.
What’s the Word?
dolorous \DOH-luh-rus\ (adj.)
An adjective that indicates feeling or expressing grief, sorrow, or stress. Merriam-Webster cites its first use around 1400, a descendant of the Latin word dolor. (Dolor also being the word for pain in both Spanish and French.) A Game of Thrones character was given the nickname “Dolorous Edd” due to his cynical sense of humor, and singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom employed it as well: “And my clay-colored motherlessness rangily reclines / Come on home now, all my bones are dolorous with vines.”
Used in a sentence: “The general mood is dolorous, though not quite as somber as the spell cast on the new solo effort by Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead’s lead guitarist.”
What We’re Reading
Poynter: “Why Using Gender-Nonspecific Language in Reporting Extends Beyond the Page”
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Words Matter When Discussing Alcohol Issues: A New Stigma-Free Vocabulary for Better AUD Outcomes”
Conscious Style Guide: The Conscious Language Newsletter (whose February issue included links to the two stories above)
NPR: “How Do You Pronounce Kyiv, the Capital of Ukraine?”
The Herald: “Trans-inclusive Vocabulary Added to Scottish Gaelic”
The Washington Post: “Do You Think of Yourself as an Athlete or an Exerciser? Here’s Why It Matters.”
BuzzFeed News: “Hollywood Unlocked Might Have Confused Queens Of The Stone Age With Queen Elizabeth When It Reported That She Died”
And finally, a tweet: