*A World without ‘Whom’,* by Emmy J. Favilla

9781632867575
Bloomsbury

Written by the chief copy editor at BuzzFeed, A World without ‘Whom’ addresses language in a fast-changing world. The title of the book refers to one of the greatest markers of this change, the use of the word “whom,” often deliberately avoided for its datedness or unconsciously substituted with “who.” Favilla provides an accessible take on various rules regarding spelling, punctuation, grammar, and style that are becoming obsolete in many areas, particularly in internet media such as BuzzFeed itself. She also provides helpful comment on developing conventions in different media, such as what to do in a text vs. an email, a tweet, etc. Published in 2017, it is perhaps not surprising that even now some of the content is appearing a little dated! Nonetheless, it is still an important read.

Favilla’s copy-editing philosophy is particularly notable. Early on, she writes, “Inaccurate information, insensitive language, and sentences that have egregious structural issues all put wear and tear on credibility…. You never want a reader to be jolted from their engrossment from a story because they’ve been distracted by an awkwardly structured, unclear, or offensively worded sentence” (33). Of course, there are exceptions to this. I would prefer to use the inclusive language of “pregnant people,” rather than simply “pregnant women,” despite it likely causing some readers a little jolt, for example, and there will be many similar situations. Perhaps this observation relates to Favilla’s critical take on the “just be consistent” mantra that often appears as a bottom-line in style guides. “There isn’t always a one-size-fits-all approach to language. And that’s really been the basis of the BuzzFeed Style Guide since day one: a fluid, evolving set of standards that shouldn’t be thought of as the iron-fisted rulers of prose… but as a thing that exists to just sorta help everyone out” (35). And quite a bit later: “How do you form an electrifying relationship with your reader? By speaking their language! Not by using the grammar rules our teachers taught us in 1989… or pretending that people aren’t really saying things like ‘I forgot how to person.'” (194).

Below I would like to offer critical comment on some of Favilla’s conclusions and suggestions. This should not be taken as a dismissal of her overall project though, which I think is basically brilliant.

In her chapter on “How Not to be a Jerk,” Favilla accepts APS* style on the distinction between a refugee and a migrant. “Use refugee when referring to ‘a person who is forced to leave his home or country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.’ Use migrant when referring to someone seeking economic oportunity” (62). But this is problematic. First, there is not always a clear-cut distinction between the migrant and the refugee. Can this persecution be the spectre of growing far-right groups in someone’s vicinity, or must it be state-sponsored violence? What constitutes a natural disaster that is significant enough to warrant refugee status? Seasonal flooding? Second, the implication that migrants seek economic opportunity overlooks a whole lot of other factors. What about those seeking education or family? Etc? Even if the distinction appears in legal texts, the responsibility of journalists and other writers involves being critical of inhumane laws, especially those that uphold such a distinction in order to prevent particular people from migrating. (*I am assuming this refers to the American Physical Society, but please let me know otherwise).

In the same chapter, Favilla commends “LGBT” and “queer” as collective terms, against such as “gay,” for example in “the gay community.” This is not simply her own conclusion but the result of many discussions with LGBTQ+ people. While I’m hetero myself, it would have been good to see comment here in regard to different approaches to the acronym. At the very least, surely a + could be included so as not to confuse say intersex people with trans people or pansexual people with bi people? L, G, B, and T don’t quite cut it as representatives themselves of a much larger collection of people. Then there is “queer,” which, while many may find it a helpful umbrella term, is potentially problematic when non-queer writers use it (especially as it originates as a slur or exonym and still carries those connotations for some), and also fails when some people who might otherwise be identified as queer reject the term altogether, even as a self-designation.

Also in this section, Favilla rejects the use of -phobic words such as “homophobic” or “transphobic,” preferring “anti-gay” and “anti-trans.” Her reasoning is that “the suffix -phobic implies a fear, and although this fear may or may not be figurative, it also implies something inherent that cannot be helped, and its use can perpetuate stereotypes.” This, however, is simply etymological fallacy, confusing a word’s meaning with its origin. I’m sure people are smart enough to be able to differentiate between agoraphobia, claustrophobia (and, it may need some work, but both the term as it is used clinically and its perhaps more common, colloquial form), and homophobia. Moreover, the noun form of the word disappears altogether. Are we to replace “transphobia” with “anti-transness?” Think also of the often helpful “xenophobia.” Don’t be so “anti-other”! I’ve had it up to here with “anti-otherness!”

On quite a different topic, I didn’t find myself quite agreeing with Favilla on capitalisation, though she suggests a great rule. “In general … you’re safer capitalizing anything derived from a proper noun than you are lowercasing it” (118). But this means that we end up with “Brussels sprouts” and “French fries”! Admittedly, Favilla reveals, “I’ll take ’em either way” (118). For such common terms, I’m much more inclined to lowercase, though perhaps this derives from my experience in theological writing where I consistently lowercase “christological” and “trinitarian” (but not “Christian” or “Triune God,” whoops). Maybe though, this whole paragraph stems from my offence at the great cheese appearing in the appendix as capital-B “Brie.” Favilla also argues that “G/god” should be lowercased “in common expressions” so: “thank god” and “god only knows,” etc. whereas it should often otherwise be capitalised (124). The reasoning is, quite rightly, that “someone’s god could be a saltshaker” (124). I wonder though, if this overlooks the other side, that someone’s god in those expressions could be quite real to them. Even atheists and agnostics (not all, I’m sure!) can harbour a poetic or literary appreciation for a G/god or two, and one that may find expression in letter case as well.

The book’s namesake also warrants comment. I wonder if Favilla is being ironic when in her very first paragraph she employs such as “nary” and “frolicking” (1). Just a few pages on a “hodgepodge” can be spotted (4). Are these not the glorious companions of the departing “whom”? (Perhaps only “frolicking”; I find the other two significantly less glorious). Why, then, does Favilla proceed to argue: “Face it: You hate whom. If you don’t, you’re likely a liar or someone with an English degree who actually still really hates whom but can’t bear to come to terms with your traitorous hatred for fear of your overpriced degree being snatched from your cold dead hands” (151)? She compares it with “shall,” as both are rarely used, unless ironically, in spoken language. (Notably, my American friends living in NZ recently asked, “Why does everyone say ‘shall’ over here?”). Her most compelling argument, however, is in an example of its incorrect usage. “They were not sure whom would do a better job” (151). Now, I can accept “whom” going out of style in spoken language (though I have often heard it and am happy to use it myself in spoken language), and this being reflected in some forms of written media (virtually all forms within another fifty years, I’m sure). But maybe I’m still in the grieving stages as “whom” enjoys continued use in my academic writing (a use also enjoyed by me), so I’m being all nit-picky about Favilla’s half-archaisms (datedisms?) in the first few pages. And, really, I’m all on board with farewelling “whom” if we can finally agree that “me and [person]” as the subject of a sentence is now acceptable English (because usage!).

I don’t know if this is just me either, but I found Favilla’s rejection of the verb “to Facebook” a little frustrating. “Why? Because Facebooking sounds silly; that’s why” (156). But Favilla is quite happy in the same chapter to accept the verbs “to Instagram” and “to Snapchat.” Hmmm. Maybe it’s because the first is ambiguous. If you Instragram something, you post it on Insta. If you Snapchat/snap someone, you send them a snap. If you Facebook something you… look it up on FB search? If you Facebook someone you… contact them over Messenger? Actually, this is the form of the verb I have used and still use. It probably derives from the earlier days before Messenger became a second thing. I’m quite happy telling someone I’ll either Messenger them or Facebook them, just as much as I am telling them I’ll “send [them] a message on Facebook/Messenger.” Also of note here is that the BuzzFeed Style Guide in the appendix lowercases “google” as a verb. Perhaps this is because it’s the most common? But I think there is a need for an executive decision here. Either all verbs deriving from proper nouns retain their capitals, so “to Google [something],” or they automatically lose them in becoming a verb, so “to snap(chat) [someone].” There is precedent for the former, in much older words such as “Judaise,” though I think I would prefer a blanket lowercasing, even on the older words.

Finally, I’m likely to be outvoted here, but I’d like to offer a little apology for the !? interrobang, as opposed to the ?! one that Favilla favours, writing, “the logic being that the sentence it punctuates is a question more so that it is an exclamatory phrase; the is just an added bonus” (250). I find the !? much more aesthetic, however. The question mark hints at enclosing the exclamation mark, somewhat like a bracket. Compare (thing!) with (thing)! The other thing is that I read a phrase or sentence with an interrobang in quite the opposite way to Favilla. When someone says, “What!?” it is their surprise, anger, enthusiasm, etc. that is apparent to me ahead of their asking a question. The logic of the exclamation-first interrobang follows this (though perhaps this symbol should have another name, as its order does not reflect “interrobang”: a “banginter?” “bangative?”).

Reposted by me on my Goodreads with my permission.

The Ambiguous Satanism of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

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Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) in ep. 1

Me and my wife recently finished watching season 1 of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix. We loved it. Beginning a week before Sabrina’s sixteenth birthday, the first season explores the trials faced by a teenage half-mortal, half-witch. A ten-episode horror-lite, the show is a particularly darker rendition of Archie Comics’ Sabrina the Teenage Witch (something I only learnt this week), more famously as a sitcom featuring Melissa Joan Hart throughout seven seasons in the nineties and early noughties. The new take is not without its own comedy though, and Lucy Davis’s performance as Sabrina’s Aunt Hilda is especially notable here. Aside from that, it is the lore, the gradual unfolding of the story with its revelations about the pasts of different characters, and the ongoing tension between Sabrina’s two worlds that gives the show its biggest appeal. My main criticism, other than that which appears in the discussion below, is that Sabrina has its characters spell out key features of the witch world or important aspects of character history, rather than have these arise more organically. But overall I found the show thoroughly enjoyable.

>>SPOILERS BELOW<<

On a yet deeper level, I think the show falls short in its depiction of Satan. Speaking generally, outside of the world of Sabrina, I would first like to point to two different uses of Satan as a symbol (though of course there will in reality be more than two). The first is that of Christian faith, where Satan is a symbol of evil. Here, the world’s greatest evils, everyday slip-ups, and even things that are good but judged by the church to be bad have all alike been associated with Satan and his primeval rebellion against God. That is, Satan has been associated with everything from Hitler to playing cards.

The second, in reaction to this misapplication of the symbol to so broad a litany of inadmirable and admirable, co-opts it and effectively employs Satan against the church. A famous example of this is the attempt by the Satanic Temple to have a statue of Baphomet installed next to the monument of the Ten Commandments on Oklahoma State Capitol grounds. Significantly, here Satan is explicitly acknowledged to be a symbol, rather than a supernatural being. The Times article puts it as follows: “Most vitally, though, the group does not ‘promote a belief in a personal Satan.’ By their logic, Satan is an abstraction, or, as Nancy Kaffer wrote for The Daily Beast last year, ‘a literary figure, not a deity — he stands for rationality, for skepticism, for speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.'” The proposal for the statue’s installation raises questions about religious freedom and the relationship between church and state in the U.S. As Ivy Forrester, cofounder of Satanic Arkansas, recently claimed in a similar attempt, “If you’re going to have one religious monument up then it should be open to others, and if you don’t agree with that then let’s just not have any at all.”

Somewhat ironically, The Satanic Temple just sued Netflix and Warner Bros. for $50 million for the use of an almost identical-looking statue in the Sabrina series. But there is yet some logic behind this:

There is some good discussion on each thread too. To be honest, I am less sympathetic to the comparison with Islam and Judaism, but maybe I just don’t know enough about Satanism.

For our purposes, Greaves’s reference to “Satanic Panic” is particularly interesting (setting aside the fact, of course, that the effectiveness of The Satanic Temple’s statue protests relies on existing Satanic Panic). Satanic Panic, as I’ve since found out, is a sociological term for the fear of real or perceived practices due to their apparent association with Satan. It could be anything from Pokémon to Charles Manson. For Greaves, Sabrina adopts Satanic Panic tropes.

This is true, but I want to argue that because of its ambiguous handling of the material, Sabrina ends up in an awkward medium between the traditional Christian symbol of Satan as great evil and the Satanist interpretation of Satan as a symbol of individual freedom and anti-Christian protest.

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The first glimpse of Dezmelda (Brenda McDonald)

This awkward medium becomes especially clear in Chapter Seven: Feast of Feasts. Here, Sabrina attempts to convince Prudence not to allow herself to be eaten by others in the coven, a yearly ritual in which a witch is cannibalised and “transubstantiated,” spending eternity with the Dark Lord. It is not the practice itself, however, that I want to draw attention to. For Sabrina, the rite is merely human and as such can be changed by humans. In order to sway Prudence, she takes her into the woods to meet Dezmelda, an older witch in hiding. Dezmelda claims that she, too, was once selected to be eaten in the feast of feasts but she escaped after her high priest attempted to rape her, a child, as he claimed that he had received a revelation from Satan informing him to do so. It becomes clear that high priests presiding over the feast of feasts are indeed merely human. The message is that child rape is a human misappropriating of the rite and not something that the Dark Lord himself would ever command!

But the problem is that while such a claim could be made of a certain Satan, perhaps a Satan who champions freedom of choice and expression, this is not the Satan that Sabrina has presented its audience with. Sabrina’s Satan is a Satan whose favourite dish is children, whose right-hand demon slays and cannibalises mortals, and attempts to wipe out a town in order to force Sabrina to come to a decision. Another demon slowly brings a man to his death through possession, the man being chosen for possession because he is gay. Then there is the Church of Night, Sabrina’s coven, which seeks to serve the Dark Lord. Members have no moral qualms about killing mortals, and a tradition of “harrowing” new entrants at the school has seen many children murdered.

Of course, there are numerous fantasy worlds where acts such as these are a matter of course and no one protests. What I am trying to do is to draw attention to the cognitive dissonance in presenting child sexual abuse as anti-Satanist but murder and other evils as normal, everyday life. The unconscious course to this dissonance probably lies in the fact that child sexual abuse is a major issue that is still taking place in our world, whereas death by demons and witches belongs to a faraway fantasy world. But if they are both real in the world of Sabrina, I cannot see the logic in finding one abhorrent and the other acceptable. The series itself is a good symbol over current cultural confusion over what to do with the symbol of Satan: a great evil or a champion of human freedom against religious institutions?