You Spell Potato, I Spell Potatoe

You Spell Potato, I Spell Potatoe

If you read The New York Times, you’ve run across news of things happening in the Saudi Arabian city “Jidda.” If you get most of your news from the Associated Press, those same events happen in “Jiddah.” Should you subscribe to Reuters, the city is called “Jeddah.”

Imagine that times are still flush and you subscribe to all three services. Now imagine searching those sites for news of the only film festival in Saudi Arabia, which takes place in that city. What term should you search? And how many stories might you miss?

Most publications have stylebooks, either their own, or one of the majors: The Associated Press Stylebook, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, or The Chicago Manual of Style. While the stylebooks disagree on many points, most of their differences do not impact readers’ efforts to seek information from any given publication.

But spelling does.

Because so much more copy is posted on Web sites than is printed in newspapers, and because so much less of that copy is edited or “processed” to reflect the publication’s style, the way words are spelled—particularly proper names—can vary widely, especially when being transliterated from a different alphabet. And because AP does not yet have the ability to transmit accents, sometimes even “common” words are rendered in a way that confuses their meaning. Accents make all the difference for example, between a “pate” (the top of the head), a “pâté” (a meat delicacy), and a “pâte” (a clay or flour paste).

Many search engines will return results based on spelling variants—a search on the Times site for the “Jidda Film Festival” returns, somewhat ironically, “Did you mean ‘Jeddah Film Festival’?”—but news sites have, on the whole, not incorporated that function.

So what to do?


  1. Ξέρεις φαντάζομαι τον σχετικό στίχο με Louis Armstrong και Ella Fitzgerald… :-)

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