Let the Mêlée Begin

A post on the ACES Discussion Board inquired into the use of accent marks for Hispanic names.

Although the post has some good stories about papers that have tried to incorporated accent marks and other diacritical marks, it seemed to me to skip over some important questions that need to be considered when thinking about whether a publication should use these marks.

At a newspaper, there are a few issues. First, straight from the AP Stylebook:

Do not use any diacritical marks on general wires because they cause garble in many newspaper computers.
The second issue at most newspapers is the time restraints. If the reporters add the proper accent marks to names, that's great. But what about names from other sources. Should you spend your time hunting down Hugo Chávez in all wire copy and making sure it has the acute accent?

As Bill Walsh of The Washington Post says in his book "Lapsing Into a Comma":
If your publication has the time and resources to use accents and other diacritical marks correctly, go for it. But I maintain that it's impossible to use them consistently and correctly in a deadline-intensive medium such as daily newspaper journalism. If you can't use them consistently and correctly, you shouldn't use them at all.
I tend to agree with that point of view. If copy came across on deadline, could you pick which words would need accent or diacritical marks? (And where?):
facade, niche, melee, deja vu, rendezvous, cafe, a la carte, bon appetit, coup d'etat, masseuse, naive, vis-a-vis, aficionado, cliche, El Nino

It would be hard to get all of them right all of the time on deadline. So is it worth it?

As if the question of being able to get accent and diacritical marks right in your publication, there's also the debate about whether they should be used at all. I will discuss that in another post, though.


Jeff said...

I think I agree with Walsh as well. I work at a paper where, depending on what day it is and whom you ask, we either always use diacriticals or we never do.

A point to be made here: It also depends on your capabilities as a publication. My paper is uniquely situated in that we have a copy editor who speaks fluent French and Spanish, and dabbles in a few other accent-heavy languages. Most of our designers are versed enough in how to change an "e" to an "é," for example. So if we want to, we can do it without jeopardizing deadlines.

But I have to say it's frustrating not having a rule. And often, we're bound by circumstance. One example is yesterday, when we got a .pdf list of Oscar nominees. Penélope Cruz didn't get the accent in the uneditable .pdf, but the copy came in with the mark. The copy editor marked her name in copy to delete the accent. I was the designer, but I'm also a copy editor, so I looked up the name. Sure enough, per Penélope's wishes, she gets the accent. But as there was nothing we could do to that .pdf, under deadline pressure, we had to let it go and go for intra-page consistency.

Okay, this comment is turning into a post. I'll stop now.

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