When journalist Aly Colon began his career, he always made the same request to his editors. Could he please have an accent?
“My father told me that I had a family name, and that that was a name I was to grow up and honor,” said Colon, “and one of the important elements of honoring that name was spelling it right.”
Newspapers have long maintained that technological problems and editorial confusion make it too difficult to add accents, officially known as diacritical marks. For Colon, now a faculty member at The Poynter Institute of journalism in St. Petersburg, Fla., it?s a question of accuracy, one of the basic tenets of journalism.
The name Pena, without the tilde over the “n,” means shame. The Spanish word for year without that squiggle becomes anus.
“I don?t take it too seriously. I usually think it?s funny when I see it wrong,” she said. But Llorente echoed other Hispanic newspaper readers when she added that seeing the accent marks “would be nice. You always want them to get it right.”
“The French do it, why don?t we?” she questioned.
Cartier?s newest “La Dona” line of watches, created in honor of Mexican actress Maria Felix, features the tilde over the “n,” distinguishing the product from the Spanish word for donut.
In recent years, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald and other large newspapers have begun to add them, as have smaller papers, but they are usually applied inconsistently and are far more likely to appear in the style section than the news pages.
Many papers blame The Associated Press for going accentless. The wire service?s 2006 stylebook says accents shouldn?t be used “because they cause garble in many newspaper computers.”
“It?s something we look at all the time,” AP Stylebook editor Norman Goldstein said. “The biggest problem is where do you stop once you start? Doing it in Spanish would be more useful, but you can?t just have diacritical marks for one language.”
The technology issue is changing as more newspapers switch to computer software that can handle the coding necessary to read the marks transmitted by AP. Editorial software provider Atex Limited, which serves 50 small and medium papers throughout the U.S. said all its systems can support accents.
Even Colon said he sees the accent over his “o” more frequently these days.
The Los Angeles Times instituted an official policy a few years back to add the tilde.
“It?s a fractional step along the lines of using accent marks,” said Clark P. Stevens, chief of the paper?s copy desks.
Stevens said the issue is difficult especially for the international desk, which has the most words to check and still gets much of its copy through e-mail and other systems that may change the accent. Also, many Hispanics in Los Angeles have lived several generations in the U.S. and no longer even use an accent, he said.
But Stevens says he believes the trend is toward more accents.
“It goes back to Journalism 101 and accuracy, and identification of a person is a primary element of information in a news story,” he said. “We?ve been edging down the road to using accents for a long, long time. I think we?ll go more that way.”