BuzzFeed introduces a writing style guide for the Internet age

As new apps shape our evolving language, BuzzFeed's style guide tries to make sense of the grammatical madness.

By , Staff writer

The Internet generates new words at an unprecedented pace. In 2013 alone, the English language grew by about 14 words per day, thanks primarily to people coining and sharing words online, according to the Global Language Monitor in Austin, Texas.

But rapid evolution creates many conundrums. When you cut ties with someone on Facebook, is that unfriending or de-friending? How do you conjugate new verbs such as RT (retweet) or GIF (creating an animated image)?

BuzzFeed is here to help. The online purveyor of silly and insightful lists and quizzes has released its own writing style guide. Much like the Associated Press and its popular style guide, BuzzFeed has laid down rules for spelling many common terms. But BuzzFeed’s list reflects the organization’s focus. This is a style guide for the Internet age.

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For example, The Christian Science Monitor's style guide has no entry for "catfished" (when someone builds a romantic, online relationship with a person who is lying about his or her true identify) or "duckface" (the pursed-lips pose that many people strike while taking a self-portrait using Instagram).

BuzzFeed sides with "de-friend" over unfriend, inserts a hyphen in "right-click" for both the verb and the noun, and capitalizes the online frenzy known as a "Twitterstorm."

"A lot of these words are just things that we tend to see over and over again on the site, and we needed an accurate and consistent way to spell them," says Megan Paolone, an associate copy editor at BuzzFeed who helped compile the list.

BuzzFeed decided on these guidelines through a mixture of conversations among its editors, turning to old-school authorities such as Merriam-Webster's dictionary, and occasionally asking people on Twitter to share their thoughts.

The wisdom of the crowd has been invaluable, says Ms. Paolone, especially when it comes to new verbs. Tech culture often wants to turn brand names into actions, such as "google" and "photoshop," both of which drop the capital letter when they become a verb, according to BuzzFeed. But when Twitter introduced a video service called Vine last year, BuzzFeed editors needed to figure out what verb people used to describe uploading a video to the new service. Vining, vineing, posting a Vine? Paolone turned to Twitter. BuzzFeed accepts "Vine-ing," which breaks the "google" capitalization rule and also uses a hyphen, unlike another word on the list: "Instagramming."

Nontraditional verbs make up most of the guide's apparent inconsistencies. When you pass along someone else's message on Twitter, that's called a "retweet" or simply "RT." The abbreviation conjugates as RT, RT'd. The same goes for GIF, GIF'd. But the shorthand for laughing out loud (LOL-ing) requires a hyphen, according to BuzzFeed.

There is a method behind this grammatical madness, says Paolone. When BuzzFeed uses a trademarked name as a verb, "the newer the company, the more likely we will be to retain the capital letter," she says. “For cases such as RT or LOL-ing, I think we just come down on the side of whatever looks right and what we’re comfortable with.” 

That answer is perfectly natural, says Paul Payack, president and chief word analyst for Global Language Monitor. While he disagrees with several of BuzzFeed's specific entries – such as allowing writers to use ?! but never !? – he says English words often slide toward easier, simpler spellings. Charles Dickens used the word "to-day," while nowadays the standard spelling is "today." In the same vein, BuzzFeed has shortened "e-mail" to just "email."

"Everything simplifies over time," says Mr. Payack. "We let the words evolve. We never see a term like '3D' become 'three-dimensional,' all spelled out. It always goes in the other direction."

If these tech companies remain relevant, people online may drop the perplexing spelling rules for "Vine-ing" and "Instagramming," just as BuzzFeed has done for "google" – much to the chagrin of trademark lawyers.

BuzzFeed published its style guide in February in part as a resource for other writers, says Paolone. If its editors are wrestling with the correct spelling of “Wi-Fi,” maybe other people are, as well. The guide not only lays out neologisms, but also presents some classic grammar rules, such as the difference between less and fewer. ("Use less when referring to mass nouns, distance, or money; use fewer when referring to things that are quantifiable.") 

To see the full BuzzFeed style guide for yourself, go to bit.ly/bfstyleguide.

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

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