Readers' Representative Journal

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What's in a name? Depends on whether you use the tilde

January 13, 2012 | 11:25 am

An article Sunday about recent missteps by a leading Mexican presidential candidate prompted a critical response from one reader.

But Jose Suarez of Los Angeles wasn’t upset by anecdotes about the candidate’s inability to name a book he’d read or to quote the price of tortillas. Suarez questioned The Times’ spelling of the candidate’s name: Enrique Pena Nieto.

“I noticed you keep calling him Pena Nieto even though his name is Peña Nieto,” Suarez wrote. “I cannot understand why a newspaper doesn't respect the spelling of a presidential candidate of a country.

“The ‘ñ’ is an official part of a major language, and word meaning changes if you don't use it. ‘Peña’ means a big rock or a place of reunion; ‘Pena’ means shame. When you report about the meteorological phenomenon of El Niño, you don’t call it El Nino. Spanish (Español) should be taken seriously.”

The reader is right. The article should have used a tilde in the spelling of Peña Nieto’s last name.

Editors had good intentions here. They were following one entry in The Times’ stylebook that says diacritical marks generally are not used in stories in the news sections -- with a couple of notable exceptions, including El Niño.

However, a separate style note states that the tilde should be used in “all proper nouns (generally, capitalized names of people and places) where it is known to be appropriate.”

Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who heads The Times’ style committee, said, “The reader’s point is well taken. Our style guidelines are clear on use of the tilde, though in day-to-day practice we have tended to rely on having the subjects of our coverage tell us their preferences. Here, with a major political figure and potential future president of Mexico, it should have been easy to establish what’s appropriate. We’ll use ‘Peña’ henceforth.

“The style note makes a good further point about not making assumptions: ‘Be aware that not all Spanish-surnamed people, especially among Americans, use the tilde,’” Fuhrmann said. “With Enrique Peña Nieto, we didn’t have to assume anything.”

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Enrique Peña Nieto campaigns in Mexico City in November. Credit: Marco Ugarte / Associated Press