Public editor: Why the Star uses accents only on French words and names

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

Fernando Gonçalves wants to know what the Toronto Star has against the tilde.

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

Fernando Gonçalves wants to know what the Toronto Star has against the tilde.

The tilde is an accent mark used in Spanish and Portuguese words. As Gonçalves explained in a recent letter to the Star, the tilde is placed over a Spanish “n” when pronounced “ny” – as in señor. It is also used in Portuguese on the “a” or “o” to indicate a nasal sound, as in “São João.”

The answer to this question is simple but likely not satisfactory to Gonçalves or others who’ve raised similar questions about missing accent symbols in the Star: In line with Canada’s two official languages, it is long-standing Star style to use accents only on French words and names.

That means that to follow proper style rules, the accent beneath the “c” on this reader’s name is also not normally used in the Star. Nor is the tilde included on the name of Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto. That was cause for concern to another reader recently.

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“Different pronunciation can be a different meaning. He could be offended,” John Rzewuski said, pointing out that without the tilde, pena means “grief, sorrow, anxiety, pain.” According to our dictionary, with the tilde, it means a “crag” or a “group” or a “clique.”

The Star’s style conventions regarding accents are not intended to offend anyone in our diverse community or beyond. They are aligned with the style rules set out by bothThe Canadian Press and The Associated Press. These wire services have valid reason for this policy as accents don’t always transmit properly through all computer systems and can sometimes show up as garble in newspapers and websites.

While some newspapers, including the New York Times and the Guardian, have opted to use the accent marks of selected other languages (the Times uses them on French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German words and names), the Star has opted to follow the CP style, as it does in most style matters.

“The main reason for our policy is that we’d like to be consistent in our pages and online,” said Anthony Collins, co-chair of the Star’s style committee. “There’s no way we could hope to accurately and consistently use accents in every other language.”

As Collins told the newsroom in a recent style note, that means in the Star “it’s Sao Paulo (not São Paulo), Almodovar (not Almodóvar), omerta (not omertà) and Utoya (not Utøya).”

Given that this is an issue of perennial concern, Collins agreed there’s a case for reopening this matter to consider whether it’s workable to broaden the use of selected accents – beginning with the tilde.

“The tilde in Spanish is perhaps a special case because the difference in meaning is often quite stark depending on whether it’s included,” Collins said. “It does look odd to write El Nino without the tilde; but then again, I’m sure some readers think it’s odd when we run names such as Almodovar or Dali without their accents.”

I get the practical concerns about more widespread use of accent marks, particularly as it pertains to accuracy. But, I also understand Gonçalves’s perspective. As a member of Canada’s Portuguese community, he believes that because the Star serves “the most ethnically diverse community in North America,” it should “correctly spell foreign words – accents and all.” He regards not doing so as a “lack of respect.”

This is a conundrum.

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