For want of a tilde, the spelling is wrong!

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Today is Robert Buckman's inaugural column on StinkyJournalism. Buckman,Ph,D., is an associate professor at University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee.

What a character! Literally.

I refer to the tilde, aka, “the little squiggly thing over the “n” in Spanish. In fact, the “ñ” is a separate character in the Spanish alphabet, with a distinct pronunciation, and it’s one that English-language print and broadcast journalists would do well to use correctly.

Case in point: Last Thursday’s presidential inauguration in Chile, which was made more newsworthy than usual outside the region because the ceremony was rattled by aftershocks from the devastating earthquake on Feb. 27.

The Associated Press, whose bureau in Santiago obviously knows better, disseminated the new president’s name as “Sebastian Pinera.”

His name is Sebastián Piñera, which is correctly pronounced peen-YAIR-uh; Pinera would be pronounced “pea-NAIR-uh.”

Hundreds of U.S. daily newspaper blindly repeated the error, as did the Web sites of CNN, Fox News and CBS News (I checked). MSNBC used an AP report by Michael Warren the day after the inauguration. No tilde.

However, I recall Diane Sawyer pronouncing it correctly on her ABC broadcast Thursday, but ABC’s Web site also got it wrong in the text report and captions .

ABC News caption: “Chile’s President Pinera Greets the Public During
His Inauguration in Valparaiso”

My own daily newspaper got it wrong, despite my tipping off the metro editor the day before that they had gotten it wrong when Piñera won the runoff in January.

I did some more spot-checking of Web sites, and found that The New York Times and the Miami Herald got the name right, even putting the accent mark on “Sebastián.”

Then I checked The Dallas Morning News, to which I have sold numerous freelance stories on Latin American elections, and saw that it carried the AP story on the inauguration, written by Michael Warren.

To my surprise, the name was spelled correctly! Did that mean the AP was getting it right and local papers were getting it wrong, or did it mean that the International Desk at the Dallas Morning News is just Spanish-savvy and corrected it?

So I queried my colleague Tim Connolly, the DMN’s international editor, who explained: “the ap doesn’t do accents. We have been adding them at the DMN since the mid-‘90s.”

But what about tildes, I shot back. Connolly replied:

“No, no tilde from the ap. Actually, none of the wire services provide the marks, including the nytimes. We occasionally see stories that probably once had them, but they are stripped out or changed in transmission somehow. For example, the other day a story from the washpost carried the byline Ernesto Londopo, or something like that, instead of Londoño — a sign that it was sent with a tilde but was changed in transmission. I think that when things are sent across different systems, they don’t translate and so the marks are usually just left off.”

Perhaps so, but if The New York Times, the Miami Herald and the DMN, plus the newsmagazines, can get it right, then other papers should, too. It’s not a trivial issue, and is certainly not limited to the spelling of Piñera.

A few years back, I got tired of seeing headlines in my local daily newspaper about “El Nino,” and so I taught my colleagues how to do the “ñ” on their Mac (which is what I’m using now) so they could correctly have “El Niño.” You just depress the “option” and the “N” keys simultaneously, release both, then hit the “N” again, and you’ve got your “ñ.”

It’s much more cumbersome to do foreign characters on a PC. You have to hit “control” and “alt,” then punch in some three- or four-number code, and they are hard to memorize. My students just showed me on the PCs in one of our writing labs that there is now a “symbols” function you can go to and click on the character you want, although it takes awhile to find it amid the hundreds of characters.

Last year I was forced to revise my reference book on Latin America, which of course is rife with accents and tildes, on a PC, and it took much longer than it does on my Mac. (Steve Jobs ought to be paying me an honorarium for this!)  But it can be done. Learn how! In the days of hot type, there was a valid excuse for not using the correct characters, but in this computer age, there isn’t.

The issue goes beyond “El Niño,” too. Recipe stories should say jalapeño, not jalapeno. And you broadcast people should learn to pronounce it correctly! Too many people pronounce the name of that fiery little pod “ha-la-PEA-no.” Gross!  It’s “ha-la-PANE-yo.”

Sportswriters, the former golfer’s name is Lee Treviño, not Trevino.

You may dismiss this as the rantings of a perfectionist, but in journalism we’re supposed to get things right, and Pinera and El Nino are just plain, dead wrong. Having a good Spanish-English dictionary handy in the newsroom would be a good start, especially if your news organization has a sizable Hispanic audience, as the New York Times, Miami Herald and Dallas Morning News do.

Moreover, failure to use the correct character can have disastrous consequences. No, I’m not exaggerating. If you have to report on an upcoming New Years Festival in your local Hispanic community, be damn sure you call it “Fiesta de Año Nuevo” and not “Fiesta de Ano Nuevo.”

Why? Because “Fiesta de Ano Nuevo” means “New Anus Festival.”
That will have your Hispanic community guffawing at your newspaper for years!


ROBERT BUCKMAN, Ph.D., is an associate professor of  communication and head of the print journalism sequence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is a member of both the Ethics Committee and the International Journalism Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the author of a reference book on Latin America and a regular freelance contributor to newspapers on Latin American politics.


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For want of a tilde, the spelling is wrong!

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4 Responses

  1. DP says:

    In American English there is not — to date — a tilde. How come? As the professor notes: the “ñ” is a separate character in the Spanish alphabet. Repeat: in the SPANISH ALPHABET! In other words, the tilde is there to help readers pronounce a word or name correctly IN SPANISH! Accordingly, to assert that America’s English-langauge news media is making a gross error because it omits the "tilde" is laughable. Or perhaps it’s "multicultural," which is what I suspect this really boils down to in the professor’s mind.

    Even if the nation’s news media started adding "tildes," would this guarantee that readers and broadcasters would start saying the words in question (with "tildes) correctly that they are reading? Frankly, I doubt it; not unless they’ve had some high school Spanish.

    The professor evidently goes into fits when he doesn’t see his prized "tilde," but why draw the line with a "tilde"? What not demand accent marks and every other odd character used in foreign alphabets? Isn’t it vital that we put an accent mark on the surname (above the "a") of President Hugo Chavez? That’s in fact the correct way to write his name; without it you can’t pronounce "Chavez" correctly — at least not the way it’s pronounced in Spanish-speaking countries.

    If the issue is all about pronunciation — and is truly important — the better way to address it, for English-language readers and speakers, is to actually give readers some help, as the professor points out with the name Sebastián Piñera. The correct pronunciation, he notes, is “pea-NAIR-uh.” But why stop there? For instance, the name "David" is pronounced completely differently in Spanish than in English. Accordingly, shouldn’t journalists give readers some help with that name too when writing about a "David" who lives in Mexico?

    As a former freelance foreign correspondent, I once sent a story to the Dallas Morning News (and to Tim Connolly) with accent marks and tildes. As I recall, the characters were dropped in the transmission process. I ended up with some misspellings that made their way into the story. The technical problems related to what the professor is advocating are not small matters.

    Frankly, on my own website, I sometimes use accent marks and tildes — and I sometimes don’t. Either way, I don’t think it matters a great deal. It will not make any difference to readers who know Spanish, and those who don’t.

    All in all, I think this is much ado about nothing, although — to be sure — it’s one that I have thought about myself. Maybe the professor should find some weighter issues to tackle for his next column, although that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this one.


  2. Bernard Webb says:

    Wow, what a long-winded way of saying "my standards are much lower than yours"! That’s a lot of writing to "justify" an egregious error in the representation of foreign languages. Your "wrong is right" attitude, combined with the need to remove personal attacks from your little screed, has the odor of Glenn Beck to it. Stinky journalism indeed!

  3. J.-M. Martin says:

    This issue is particularly pertinent with tonal languages, which tend to be extremely homophonous when tones are not indicated. For example, there are actually two Chinese surnames normally rendered as "Wang", which are readily distinguishable when written with proper tone marks (Wáng and Wāng). Unfortunately, even Chinese English-language news sources don’t bother indicating this information, which feeds the common notion that Chinese names are "all the same" — even if one doesn’t know how á and ā actually sound, they’re still set off from each other on the page. By contrast, some Vietnamese English-language publications go out of their way to preserve the correct orthography, like the official Việt Nam News; foreign sources usually don’t even preserve the distinction between đ and d, much less the tone marks.

  4. liz l says:

    I think the crucial distinction here is that the n~ is a distinct letter in Spanish, rather than an add-on. It irritates me no end to see "pinera", etc in print. Just as it irritates me to see street names like "Calle Carlos Marx" in Spain, because although they have a "k" in their alphabet it is rarely used.

    I can live without accents, but the tilde is not accent.

    I’m with the professor.

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