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It is far from clear what errors the Mexican national team might make this week at soccer’s World Cup on the heels of Sunday’s euphoric victory over Germany, but the team addressed one even before the games started. The way it displays players’ names on its jerseys is, finally, correct.
And the team confirmed it was thanks to the keen eye of Paulina Chavira, an editor at The New York Times en Español in the Mexico City bureau. Ms. Chavira noticed last year that the names lacked accent marks, an omission that amounts to a spelling error.
Hernandez was not Hernández, as it should be, and Ms. Chavira vented about it on her Twitter feed, which has become a leading forum for discussion of the Spanish language and its orthography.
In time, she learned that omitting the accents on capital letters was a practice that carried over from the limitations of typewriters back in the day. This seemed anachronistic to her, since computer word-processing programs can easily do it.
Yet in recent weeks, as the Mexican team played warm-up games ahead of the World Cup, Ms. Chavira noticed something. The names suddenly had accent marks.
“We pushed it since you made us see that what we saw as something minor was a big mistake,’’ the soccer federation’s press officer, Israel Márquez, said.
We asked Ms. Chavira to tell us about the accent kerfuffle, and how she also became a well-respected grammar cop.
Q. On Twitter you said you were crying with emotion over the inclusion of accent marks on the jerseys of the Mexican national soccer team. I cry, too, when I get accent marks correct. But why was that so important and what role did you play in getting them?
I’m a grammar obsessive, passionate about Spanish and soccer and the richness of both. What’s more, “futbol” is one of the most important sports in Mexico: the one with the most followers and the one that’s most widely seen.
That the national team players’ names are accurately written is a way of inviting people to nurture our language and to highlight the importance of writing it correctly. A simple accent may seem trivial for a lot of people, but its presence or its absence changes the way we pronounce a word, and sometimes even its meaning.
The press chief for the Mexican Football Federation told me the absence of the accents was due to the fact that the players’ names had no accents on their passports, so the players had been registered that way. That mistake then ended up on the jerseys.
We dug into the reason they don’t write the accents on official documents and how that is an error in itself. We published an article, which was one of the most read for The New York Times en Español last summer.
And then on May 28, for the match between Mexico and Wales, the jerseys read: “GUTIÉRREZ,” “ALANÍS” and “ÁLVAREZ.”
I was immediately excited. My work had helped more people to let go of this obsolete belief that capital letters have no accents in Spanish.
Q. So, with the accent marks on their jerseys, does Mexico have a better chance of victory in the World Cup?
I would like to think they had at least a little something to do with the victory over Germany — looks like everything is well done this time. For sure it gives us an advantage in the world cup of grammar. The national teams of Panama, Peru, Costa Rica and Colombia don’t use the accents, for example. But what will definitely change this time around, in Russia, is that those Mexicans who follow the team will see that Spanish grammar rules are followed even when it comes to soccer.
Q. On Twitter, in texting, a lot of people don’t use accent marks. Are they going to fade away some day — the accent marks, that is?
I would like to believe the answer is no, but there is a trend toward simplifying a lot of grammar and orthographic rules. There are words in Spanish that need an accent mark in order to identify their purpose in a sentence, like “si” versus “sí” (the first one is used as an “if,” the second as an affirmative “yes”). It’s an orthographic sign that I like quite a bit. But who knows, maybe in a couple of years — I hope not in my time — it will have disappeared.
Q. At what point did you turn your Twitter feed into a clearinghouse on Spanish grammar and usage?
Back in July 2013, the Mexican Ministry of Public Education acknowledged that the textbooks that are freely given out to public schools all over the country contained 117 mistakes. I was aghast. Those mistakes were representative of the lack of care put into education over all. And I became more indignant once the Mexican media, when talking about those 117 mistakes, were themselves committing errors.
I noticed that many people do not put more time into learning Spanish than what is taught in primary school (when we are from 6 to 12 years old), and many of those people are journalists.
Those of us who work in media have an obligation to our language: It is the most basic tool to transmit information, and still many times we do not update our knowledge base.
In 2013 I was working as a proofreader for one of the biggest publishers in Spanish and so I had to be very familiar with orthographic rules. I started copy-editing tweets by some members of the media — using the hashtag #117errores, 117mistakes.
That is how it all began.
Q. In English, there are raging debates over things like the Oxford comma. What keeps Spanish grammarians awake all night?
A. In Spanish we have many debates. It is a language as rich and varied as the many countries and regions that speak it.
There are 23 academies, or institutions, and all Spanish speakers have a love-hate relationship with them. There are those who claim the academies are too restrictive, while others believe them to be too lax and all-accepting.
A debate that has really caused passions to flare started in 2010, when the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language (the organization that encompasses all 23 academies) recommended we stop using the accent mark when writing “solo,” — which can mean “alone,” “simply” or “just,” depending on the context.
Some people refused to do so. Others, like me, have stopped using the accent.
Q. What was the turning point in your life that made you a lover of language and how it is used?
A. I remember I used to enjoy doing grammar analysis, and I was in a spelling and orthography competition. But it wasn’t until I started #117errores that I truly found my vocation and knew it was what I wanted to dedicate myself to.
Q. You should write a book on Spanish grammar.
Well, I am working on the stylebook for The New York Times en Español. That in itself is quite the challenge.
Q. How challenging is it for The New York Times en Español to write in a Spanish acceptable to a broad audience of Spanish speakers? And shouldn’t that be “español” with a small e?
When we started out, in January 2016, the idea was to use a form of Spanish that all of us understood. In the newsroom we have had Venezuelan, Colombian, Mexican, Spanish and Argentine journalists. Working together, it became clear that we were using an artificial form of Spanish that seemed foreign to us, and in turn negating the richness of our language. All variants are lovely and they add to our understanding of the world.
We are not looking for a “neutral” Spanish; instead, we seek to add value and meaning to variations from the Spanish-speaking countries from which we have the most readers, always taking care that the Spanish we use is comprehensible. There are more Mexicans in the newsroom than journalists of other Spanish-speaking nationalities, so I suppose sometimes our voice wins out, but we try to be as pluralistic as possible.
Regarding the small letter “e,” we capitalize The New York Times en Español since that is the official name of the project, but if we were speaking of español as a language, then we would use lowercase.
Keep up with Times Insider stories on Twitter, via the Reader Center: @ReaderCenter.
Randal C. Archibold is a deputy sports editor and former Mexico City bureau chief.
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