Getting diacritical marks right is crucial in legal writing. In intellectual property disputes, for example, they can make or break your case.
English is a fluid language. We import words from other languages all the time. Some of these words will auto-correct in your word processing program to include letters with diacritical marks. You may have handled cases that require the use of foreign names or words.
Often, you have to figure out how to insert these special letters into your documents. In some instances, the appearance or absence of diacritical marks or other symbols could make or break your case.
Accent marks, umlauts, cedillas and tildes are some of the diacritics you come across and probably don’t think twice about. The best one of something is the crème de la crème. The hoodwinked investor was a naïf. Putting up a false front creates a façade. The plaintiff was injured by an incorrectly hung piñata.
The n with a tilde, the eñe, is the 27th letter in the Spanish alphabet. Letters with diacritical marks are different letters than those without such marks.
The default in the United States is to wipe out the diacritical marks. Most of the time you can get away with this, but your writing can be clearer with the use of some diacritical marks. Perhaps the most helpful use is the accent marks in résumé to distinguish this noun from the verb resume. A global economy and a diverse population have led to problems caused by ignoring those extra letters.
Names of People
Many of the lawyers and parties you come across will have names with diacritical letters. A prominent example is the current Los Angeles district attorney, George Gascón. Correctly spelling people’s names is a sign of respect. Failing to do so can start you off on the wrong foot. Accurately spelling people’s names can also be critical in assuring that you are naming the right person in a contract, summons, or subpoena.
Several states ban the inclusion of diacritical marks or any symbol other than the 26 letters of the English alphabet in names recorded on birth and death certificates. There are a few published cases of adults unsuccessfully trying to legally change their name to include numerals. It seems like only a matter of time before somebody named José or Lucía will bring suit if they haven’t already.
Names of Places
States such as Texas, Kansas, Massachusetts and California ban the use of diacritical marks in names in official documents, but many have no compunction about officially naming their cities using such marks. To avoid a motion to dismiss, advocates should be careful to correctly spell the names of cities such as Utqiaġvik, Alaska, Hāʻōʻū, Hawaii, Lindström, Minnesota, or La Cañada Flintridge, California.
Names of Companies
Intellectual property disputes can arise when the difference between company names is the inclusion of diacritical marks. The problem is exacerbated when a state ignores the diacritics when the company registers its name. Confusion can arise when a business uses diacritical marks on their electronic and paper communications and signage, but the company registration omits these marks.
Ideally, all these would match up. But if a business insists on a name with marks (say, to appeal to an ethnic market), but the state won’t recognize it, all you can do is advise the client about the potential for confusion.
As with human names, states differ on whether they will register a company name with diacritical marks. Notably, company names with diacritical marks were only permitted in the UK in 2015.
Fine, But I Don’t Have Those Marks on My Keyboard
Here are three ways to correctly spell words and names with diacritical marks.
- As mentioned above, some words will auto-correct to include the marks.
- To insert a letter with a diacritical mark in Word, choose Insert and Symbol. You should be able to find what you need.
- A third way is to search for the word online, then copy and paste it into your document.
Like everything else you do in your practice, getting it right is important.
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