July 1, 2004

I want my name spelled right. People usually do. Especially when their name appears in a newspaper. A long time ago, way back in the 20th century, I remember a comment that went something like this: I don’t care what you write about me so long as you spell my name right.

In fact, I believe spelling someone’s name right has ethical implications. After all, a fundamental element of ethical journalism involves accuracy. Misspelling someone’s name results in an inaccuracy. Therefore, a newspaper that knowingly misspells someone’s name publishes inaccuracy and might be viewed as unethical.

Simple enough, right? Well, maybe not as simple as it might seem. At least not when it comes to my name, or others like it. You see, my last name requires an acute accent mark in order to spell it correctly.

Here is how it should be spelled: Colón.

Notice the short slash over the second “o.” It’s also called a diacritical mark. Without that mark, I become a punctuation mark, or a part of the intestine: a colon. Not only is that an inaccurate spelling, some might even wrinkle their noses at it, no matter what Shakespeare says about “a rose by any other name…”

Besides, it is my name. And as Allan Siegal, an editor at The New York Times, e-mailed me when I inadvertently misspelled his last name: “It is a poor thing, but mine own.”

The fact is that names matter. Spelling words correctly matters.

So what prompts me to raise this issue now? After all, I’ve been fighting this spelling/accuracy battle with my name all my life. Whenever, and wherever, I could, I tried to make sure my byline had the acute accent mark over the second “o.”

A reporter in similar circumstances asked my advice recently and rekindled my interest in the topic. On one level, it’s a relatively simple matter — a simple mark above a letter in a name. In fact, it’s an issue with many dimensions: ethics, diversity, accuracy, technology, consistency, and tradition.

In pursuit of answers, I turned first to a couple of wordsmiths I’ve consulted before: Norm Goldstein, the Associated Press’ stylebook editor, and John McIntyre, the AME of the copy desk at The Sun in Baltimore and president of the American Copy Editors Society.

I asked both of them about the use of accent marks, and other diacritical marks such as the tilde, umlaut, etc., as well as their views of the standards governing their use.  

McIntyre’s response came swiftly and succinctly: “It’s a mess.” He explained in a phone interview that the use of accent marks presents a number of challenges. They include the transmission of such marks by wire services, their display by various newsroom computer systems, and the special handling they require from already over-burdened copy desks. Using accent marks also represents change, an unwelcome force in most institutions, including newsrooms. 

“People in the newsroom are remarkably resistant to change,” he said. “The way we deal with accent marks would generate even more resistance. Their attitude is: ‘We don’t like change and we won’t make an exception for you.'”

Goldstein e-mailed me that the AP doesn’t use diacritical marks on its general wires, although some of its world wires do, especially in Latin America.

“We do not use accent marks because they cause garbled copy in some newspaper computers. (We categorize them as “nontransmitting symbols.),” he wrote in his initial e-mail to me.

The New York Times stylebook, he added, notes that “accent marks are used for French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German words and names.” He said that “Times style calls for six marks: the acute accent, the grave accent, the circumflex, the cedilla, the tilde, and the umlaut.”

He also referred to an article by Jesse Wegman, who wrote about diacritical marks for Copy Editor with the headline “Accent on Diacritics.” The story, he noted, surveyed copy editors and found “one thing above all: copy editors spend a surprising amount of time thinking about diacritical marks, because there is no single generally accepted standard for their use.”

Counterpoint: “English isn’t a language of diacriticals, and we’re writing in English.”
–Author Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh, author of the book “Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print — and How to Avoid Them,” and a copy editor on the national desk of The Washington Post, responded to my query about this issue by e-mailing me that “any newspaper that tries to use accent marks dooms itself to inconsistency, unless it uses no wire copy.”

He argues that since wire services don’t use such symbols, copy editors would need to track down every name that might use one and ask if it’s required. “Obviously, that’s impossible,” he wrote.

“The counterpoint is that we should at least do our best to be correct where possible,” he added. “But I don’t consider this a matter of correctness. English isn’t a language of diacriticals, and we’re writing in English.”

Walsh points out that this represents his personal view and that The Washington Post does use some diacritical marks. If the paper can verify a name needs a tilde, it uses it. But that’s because it has been argued, he wrote, that the tilde, an ñ and the n, are different letters in Spanish. “…To omit the tilde is a misspelling — a more serious error than the omission of an acute or grave accent mark,” he wrote.

Obviously, I don’t agree that it’s a less serious error. But then I do have a personal bias in this case, as I think anyone would who would want his or her name spelled correctly. I do, however, empathize with the concerns outlined by Walsh and other copy editors. As the newspaper’s gatekeepers of the language, and the accuracy of the copy, they take their roles seriously. And they should.

Clark P. Stevens, Senior Editor for Copy Desks at the Los Angeles Times, expressed similar concerns and also recognized the personal element associated with this issue. “The most troubling aspect (with regard to accent marks) gets down to names. Because names are considered so sacred,” he said during a phone interview.

He added that some people might not even know whether their name requires an accent mark, and that many Latinos might not even use them here. “I suspect as we (go) down the line we will probably make some compromise measure to probably put marks on all proper names, but I’m not sure we would do that,” Stevens said.

The consistency factor bothers Stevens, as it does the other copy editors I contacted. In fact, when Stevens checked out Poynter Online he found that while an accent mark appears in my byline, my name does not consistently include the accent elsewhere on the site. Was it a style issue? Confusion? Computer driven?

“Is it inconsequential? Does it mis-serve you or, more important, readers?” he wrote to me in an e-mail trying to elaborate on the struggles copy editors face with this issue.

Again, I appreciate the complexity involved with this quixotic venture I’m on. But maybe that’s only natural since my great-grandparents came from the same country where writer Miguel de Cervantes sent Don Quixote (Quijote in Spanish) out to tilt with windmills. (And if my high school honors Spanish teacher is reading this, he might e-mail me how much he had to challenge me to get the accent marks in the right place.)

So let me suggest this: If someone asks that his or her name be spelled correctly — and that means using a diacritical mark that can be verified — then use it.

Walsh, in “Lapsing Into a Comma,” addresses another language issue: the use of the word, gay. “Yes, the appropriation of gay by homosexuals did rob us of a perfectly good synonym for happy,” he writes. “But the latter usage — and, frankly, this complaint is getting rather tired. The new usage? It’s here. It’s queer. Get used to it.”

I’d like to use that same argument with regard to accent marks. Those of us with such names are here. Get used to us.

In a follow-up e-mail, Goldstein at AP noted that: “My own feeling is that use of accent marks will increase — but slowly –- among all publications, including the dailies, as (1) technology eliminates the physical difficulty (there are no keys on my keyboard for many standard accent marks); and (2) the language continues to absorb international words and they become more familiar to the mainstream.”

And finally, this topic sent me to review “The Story of English” by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. The book shows how English has been an evolving language that has welcomed the immigration of new words the way this country has welcomed (or tried to welcome) new immigrants.

The book includes something written by H.L. Mencken, in “The American Language,” in 1919, that all of us who care about language may want to remember:

“A living language is like a man suffering incessantly from small haemorrhages, and what it needs above all else is constant transactions of new blood from other tongues. The day the gates go up, the day it begins to die.”

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

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