the second plenary session of the RAE for the tilde of ‘only’ that did not become “stormy”

It had been a long time since a plenary session of the Royal Spanish Academy had not aroused so much expectation. The reason was the controversy generated around the diacritical tilde in ‘solo’ when it operates as an adverb. The “risk of ambiguity” in the context has divided writers and lexicographers for years, whose debate has been fierce during the last week. Specifically, since the RAE decided just seven days ago to include a phrase that, however, “does not modify the doctrine”, as they clarified hours later on Twitter. These are the words of contention: “In the judgment of the one who writes.”

It seems evident that the conclusions drawn by some academics were very different from the plenary session last Thursday, March 2, in which it was agreed to include a nuance in the wording of the standard, scheduled to be published in the Pan-Hispanic Dictionary of Doubts (DPD), which will be presented at the International Congress of the Spanish Language (CILE) in Cádiz on March 29.

It all started with a tweet from Arturo Pérez-Reverte, published on the same day of the plenary session, in which he shared a piece of news about abc whose headline read: “The RAE rectifies and returns the accent to only thirteen years later.” The writer and journalist commented on this: “Sometimes old battles are won”. And the celebration spread like wildfire through social networks.

[La bronca por la tilde en “solo” sigue: la RAE dice ahora que ponerla depende de cada uno]

The belligerents, led by Pérez-Reverte and a list of writers that includes names such as Mario Vargas Llosa, celebrated the victory over the linguists, who in 2010 established the withdrawal of the accent in ‘only’ when it operated as an adverb —from this moment would be penalized—after a review of the Spelling of the Spanish language. Less than 24 hours later, the RAE manifested itself through its Twitter account: the norm did not change. Only one sentence was introduced to clarify the “doctrine”, according to his own tweet, approved in 2010: “in the opinion of the writer”.

The euphoria immediately turned into disappointment. Pérez-Reverte’s assessments of the RAE’s explanations directly expressed outrage. “@RAEinforma is giving biased and inaccurate information”he assured, and even his omen about the plenary session this Thursday gave off a tone of alarm: “it will be stormy”, he concluded. This has not been the case, according to the director of the RAE, Santiago Muñoz Machado, who has appeared at a press conference after the meeting between academics this afternoon to announce that the minutes of last week’s plenary session have been “unanimously approved ” in today’s session, so that the position of the academy “is ratified”.

Muñoz Machado took advantage of his speech to report on the course of the plenary session and explain some issues about the controversy. “We have reached a peaceful solution to everyone’s liking and we have had a great academic plenary session”, he celebrated. By the way, Pérez-Reverte has been “one of the most active academics in today’s session”, as revealed by the director, but it has not been, as he predicted, “a stormy plenary session”. “You see that I do not come with any dressing, I am safe and sound”he joked.

And it is that the author of Revolution had been upset that the RAE considered in a tweet that “nothing new is added” in the norm —for him it is “an important modification”—, as well as that the speaker “will have to justify” that “there is a risk of ambiguity” when he decides to label the adverb ‘only’. But “the academy did not agree to that in any way”, has stressed the director, who has also denied that that rule was approved “unanimously” in plenary session last week. Sources from the institution itself who have spoken for El Cultural ratify it, and add that it was “by majority.” Machado has said that “There was only one who objected”, although he has not mentioned his name. The aforementioned source has also ensured that the plenary session has taken place “with absolute cordiality”. And he has added: “the meetings of the Academy are not like those of the Congress.”

The spelling question

Regarding the spelling question itself, Muñoz Machado has recognized that the fact of introducing the nuance that the existence of ambiguity is left “in the opinion of the writer” opens the door for writers to decide to always use the tilde “even if there is no no ambiguity”. It is precisely this, labeling ‘only’ whenever it is an adverb without considering the risk of ambiguity, which many academics have defended in today’s plenary session, according to the cited source.

Also, according to the same source, the Mexican Academy of Language, one of the 23 members of ASALE, which this afternoon issued a statement in favor of this position. “But what the Spanish Academy has approved is that ‘only’ will be marked when it is an adverb, whenever there is a risk of ambiguity“, he insists. Muñoz Machado, however, explained in his appearance that he had met via telematics with all the ASALE academies to explain the change and they all agreed.

The director has clarified that the nuance introduced “it is not a modification of the norm, but a modification of the wording of the norm”and has emphasized that its most important implication has to do with academic exams. Until now, the wording of the doctrine allowed a teacher to fault the student when he used the tilde without it being necessary. “With this modification, we wanted to avoid that and that students have security when putting the tilde”. In other words, the possibility of being scored negatively for the use of the accent disappears, since it will remain at their discretion, and not the examiner’s.

By the way, another of the academics who has agreed to give statements to El Cultural on condition of anonymity —“There are still some frictions between academics”, has been excused— celebrated that “the use of the tilde does not have a punitive character.” And it is that, according to him, he assures, “putting the accent is not a grammatical mistake”. However, he has been satisfied that there is finally “acceptance in the decision after so many twists and turns.”

Story of a controversy

It is pertinent, at this point, to look back in time to remember that in the last edition of the Orthographythat of 2010, we read that “the word ‘only’, both when it is an adverb […] as when it is adjective […], should not have an accent mark due to the general rules of accentuation”. In other words, “because it is a flat two-syllable ending in a vowel.”

In the same article, “The diacritical tilde in the adverb ‘only’ and in the demonstrative pronouns”, the Academy recognized that “cases of ambiguity could occur” —“Do you only work on Sundays”, for example: do you only work on Sundays or do you work without company?”—, but “employment […] of the diacritical accent —”graphic accent that allows distinguishing words with the same form”, according to the dpd of the RAE—does not oppose in these cases tonic forms to other formally identical unstressed ones”.

It turns out that ‘solo’ is indeed a tonic word, so “you can dispense with the tilde […] even in cases of double interpretation”we read, since “possible ambiguities are almost always resolved by the context itself” and, in the worst case, “can always be resolved with […] the use of synonyms, an adequate punctuation…”

Nothing better than an example to illustrate the postulates of the solotildistas. Salvador Gutierrez Ordonezthe academic who holds the position of director of the Orthography and of the dpd to whom Pérez-Reverte referred in his furious tweets last week, used a very revealing example in a report from abc: the word “slow”. In “Juan was slow”, the word could be interpreted as an adjective if we understand that “was” refers to the verb to be, while it could also be an adverb (“slowly”) if that “was” corresponds to the verb to go. “According to the ‘only’ rule, this second example should be labeled ‘slow’,” he explained.

In the communiqué issued by the Academy minutes after the plenary session, it is reported that “between 1870 and 1880 this feature to differentiate the adverb ‘alone’ from the adjective ‘alone’as well as the demonstrative pronouns ‘este’, ‘ese’, ‘aquel’ of the determiners that have the same form”. They have sought balanced solutions.

In the reissue of Pan-Hispanic Dictionary of Doubtsthe doctrine will appear in a “more explicit” way, according to the Academy, “although it maintains the norm of the Spelling of the Spanish language” of 2010: on the one hand, “it is obligatory to write the adverb ‘only’ without tilde in contexts where its use does not entail a risk of ambiguity”. For another, “it is optional to brand the adverb ‘only’ in contexts where, in the opinion of the writer, its use entails a risk of ambiguity”.

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