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AP style is not an excuse for Anglocentrism

June 22, 2009

From the AP Stylebook Online:

accent marks Do not use any diacritical or accent marks because they cause garble for some users. See also the Filing Practices chapter on Nontransmitting Symbols.

From the above-mentioned Filing Practices:

accent marks Do not use them; they cause garbled copy in some newspaper computers.

I don’t know why I should be surprised that the Associated Press is so backward. The organization still uses “Web site,” for goodness’ sake.

But this example is a more serious problem. It’s not just technologically backward; it’s culturally backward as well.

Diacritical and accent marks wouldn’t exist if they didn’t convey meaning — such is the nature of language. A top-of-my-head example from Spanish: “Papá,” roughly translated, means “Daddy.” “Papa” means “potato.” And many other languages are even more sensitive with regards to meaning.

Not to mention that butchering a language is annoying, even offensive, to native speakers. Imagine there’s a land called Uu, and the people there don’t have any O’s in their language. When writing English words, they substitute the most similar letter, which they determine is U. You, as a part of the English-speaking minority, will just have to deal.

Now, every Wednesday you catch up with the smoke monster on a new episode of Lust (which now sounds like a daytime drama or a high-end porno mag). You check your e-mail on your iPhune. You drink a glass of urange juice (UJ). In fact, “you” are now “yuu.”

And I thought it was annoying to have the B lowercased in my last name.

Obviously, some things have to be Anglicized somewhat — it would be impractical to write proper names in the original Farsi or Japanese. But ignoring diacritical marks is a disservice to our readers that we can pretty easily rectify.

In many cases nowadays — at least in HTML-based apps — we should be able to keep the text from being garbled by special characters.  But it’s possible there are still some communication problems among browsers and Web/e-mail programs regarding symbols, so if the AP wants to keep its practices for filing stories mostly as they are, OK. However, the organization needs to head off the over-literal stylebook-worshippers and make it easier for member publications that want to honor diacritical marks to do so. The AP should request that contributing writers and editors note if there is a word or name in their story that ought to have a special character, so individual publications can make the choice for themselves.

Newspapers and other publications should make using special characters common practice. That’s what house style is for — adapting the AP’s guidelines to your audience and adapting its filing practices into practical usage.

And for not alienating our readers.

Thoughts? Experiences?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2009 2:16 pm

    I edit a local magazine where we’ve chosen to follow AP style – but there are a few places where we deviate. This is one of them. Our production process handles all those marks just fine, so why wouldn’t I use them? Thank goodness I don’t need to file with AP.

  2. Mel permalink
    June 22, 2009 2:51 pm

    Not to mention there are some more … interesting … cases of confusion when you don’t use the diacritical mark: ano vs. año, for instance — or anus vs. year. 🙂

  3. janeadams16 permalink
    June 24, 2009 11:45 pm

    So true, Accent marks are very important.

  4. obo permalink
    August 29, 2009 4:24 pm

    It’s worse than you make it out to be. Also from the AP Stylebook:
    “Symbols and combinations of characters and symbols used by languages other than English generally can be transmitted or received only by AP and newspaper computers programmed for those languages. Leave the symbols off or use generally accepted equivalents. For example, German umlauts are represented using two regular letters when they are needed: In “Goethe,” the “oe” is the “o” with an umlaut.”

    “But it’s possible there are still some communication problems among browsers and Web/e-mail programs regarding symbols”

    There’s no standard encoding on the Web, and many encoding sets are similar enough for them to be tagged as one kind but interpreted as another, leading things like smart quotes to be reinterpreted as letters with diacriticals. (True apostrophes turning into “í”s are a daily annoyance when automating e-mail submissions into our news database.)

    There’s five or six different encoding sets for the same set of symbols covering most American/Western European languages, with each of them differing in some way that causes significant errors – and that’s not even getting into Unicode. HTML 5 will force the issue by translating ISO IEC-8859-1, a popular encoding for e-mail and some Web content that excludes some punctuation and diacriticals, into the broader Windows-1252 encoding; see for an example.

    I do agree with your point, but the technological hurdles in standardizing encoding across different software and hardware platforms are not very neatly resolved on the Web, much less the more specialized and proprietary platform of the AP. The AP should, however, at least change their policy to at least note when diacriticals are left out of copy.

  5. November 20, 2013 11:36 pm

    Greetings from Lima, Peru, which I wrote with no ú because I’m writing in English and I respectfully disagree with the thesis.

    In addition to Peru, I also lived in Bogota, Colombia for three years. In both places, I found the appearance especially unprofessional and awkward when using the possessive form given the accent marks at the end of the word, as in “Bogotá’s altitude” or “Perú’s cuisine.”

    I’m not the technical expert Obo is (above comment), but I have noticed similar difficulties. Using accent marks or even the tilde (ñ) in page titles for websites caused some seriously difficult URL’s on my blog. And as programming languages can’t realistically include all the world languages’ characters, the difficulties probably won’t disappear.

    To take the technical question further, should Google strictly interpret the accent mark? So if someone looks up Medellin or Mexico without accent marks, he should get no results with the correct Spanish spellings?

    And to address the politically correct allegation of Anglocentrism, I’d argue it’s less than what Latin America does to the Anglo world. In Spanish, my hometown is “San Luis, Misuri,” which is a greater change than just omitting an accent mark. It translates the words. That’s the equivalent of calling my adopted city “Lime, Peru,” or Colombia’s Caribbean hotspot, “Indians’ Cartagena.” And while we Anglicize the spelling of Sao Paolo, that’s less ethnocentric than calling it Saint Paul. Canada is spelled Canadá in Spanish, which adds an accent mark where there shouldn’t be one and changes the pronunciation of a word that Spanish speakers would otherwise have no trouble pronouncing in its correct form. While every language needs to translate and adjust others’ languages, English does it a lot less than Spanish.

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