Language Matters - April 2, 2018 - 4 min

Using Accents and Diacritics in English

To many speakers of English, there is something distinctly foreign about those small symbols that accompany letters in words like piñata, café, and many more. The reason for this is no mystery; they have never been a prominent part of the English writing system, unlike most languages that use a Latin script. Although many people call them accents, the correct name for these symbols is diacritic mark or simply diacritic. The term accent specifically refers to a subclass of some of the more common diacritics.

Because they are uncommon and may be difficult to enter using a standard English keyboard, writers might be tempted to omit them. But is this acceptable practice? If not, can we at least dispense with some of them? Read on to find out.

Diacritics in Borrowings

Many languages make extensive use of diacritics, and English has absorbed a steady stream of foreign words and expressions throughout its development, particularly from French. These borrowings sometimes come with diacritics, including the following common symbols:

Name Symbol Example
Acute accent ´ Café
Grave accent ` Cortège
Diaeresis ¨ Naïve
Circumflex ˆ Entrepôt
Cedilla ¸ Façade
Tilde/eñe* ˜/ñ Jalapeño

Words and expressions that are less well established in English, such as piñata (from Spanish), raison d’être (from French) and açai (from Portuguese), generally include their original diacritics. English speakers are more likely to omit the diacritics from words they consider to have become part of their language, which is why they are no longer found in such words as hotel, role and elite—from the French words hôtel, rôle and élite. Meanwhile, a number of other French-derived words frequently occur both with and without diacritics, for example café/cafe, façade/facade and naïve/naive. Although these words have a long history in English, most people are aware of their French origins, which may explain why their diacritics often persist.

Additionally, most English speakers have some knowledge of how the diacritics in these words work. They know that the acute accent in café means the final e is not silent (IPA: [eɪ]), and that the cedilla in façade denotes a soft c (IPA: [s]). This awareness may be another reason why diacritics are retained in certain words, but it can also cause them to be used incorrectly or inconsistently. Many a café in the English-speaking world offers its customers a latté, but the Italian word from which it derives, latte, is accent-free. Many job advertisements will ask candidates to send in a resumé, but the French word résumé includes two acute accents (resume, which drops the accents entirely, is also an acceptable form in English).

This haphazard application of diacritics stems from a misunderstanding of the symbols in question and is widely discouraged. However, different style guides have different opinions on whether they should be retained in borderline cases such as café and façade. Since each case can be viewed differently in terms of how well established the word is in English and how useful its diacritics are, it would be unusual for any writer to either use diacritics at every opportunity or reject them completely. A number of different approaches are acceptable as long as writers make sure that each word is spelled consistently throughout a text and that their chosen spelling is permitted by a reputable dictionary.

Proper nouns are another class of words that sometimes appear in English texts with diacritics. Naturally, most of these proper nouns refer to places outside of the English-speaking world or people whose names originate in a non-anglophone culture. Their diacritics are often among the most challenging for English speakers since they may find them completely unfamiliar: while most would have little trouble with the acute accent in the Mexican state of Querétaro, the t-comma in the Romanian city of Constanța might be harder to get right. Despite the potential for confusion and technical limitations (the t-comma could not even be entered using the Unicode Standard until 1999), it is good practice for writers to adhere to diacritics in proper nouns and to ensure that they are accurate by referring to the relevant resources.

The English Diaeresis

All the examples of diacritics that we have seen so far have their origins in other languages, but one symbol has been known to occur natively in English: the diaeresis. As shown above, the diaeresis consists of two dots. It can be placed above a vowel and occurs in English names such as Zoë and Brontë, and very occasionally in common nouns such as coöperate and reëxamine. The latter examples are almost entirely obsolete, and the only major publication that still makes use of them is the print edition of the New Yorker magazine. Here, the diaeresis serves to isolate a vowel’s sound from any of its adjacent vowels, making it clear that the double o in cooperate does not correspond to the usual English oo sound (IPA: ), and the double e in reexamine does not correspond to the usual ee sound (IPA: [i]).

Still, the English language is full of phonetic anomalies and cooperate is not an unfamiliar word: speakers know how to pronounce it without the help of a diaeresis. Writers who fear ambiguity are free to use a hyphen to separate prefixes such as co- and re- from their stems; the forms co-operate and re-examine are common and widely accepted. Since most writers do not have the editorial authority of the New Yorker, we recommend that they avoid this application of the diaeresis.

Technical Limitations

Of course, the advice given above depends on the ability of writers to enter diacritics using the tools at their disposal. Technical limitations can almost always be overcome, but with varying degrees of complexity. Keyboards from the country or region in question usually make it easy to enter the relevant diacritics, but other users have to rely on key combinations specific to their operating system or word processing software. Most of the required information is readily available through online searches, and if all else fails, copying and pasting is always an option.

Summary: When to Use Diacritics

Here is a recap of the types of words or expressions that may contain diacritics in English. If in doubt, use it as a quick reference.

Type of Word Examples Recommendations
Recent borrowings from other languages Açai, Jalapeño, Frappé Retain diacritics wherever possible.
Established English words with origins in other languages Façade, Role, Fiancé In some cases, diacritics should be omitted. In others, they are optional or even recommended. Check the dictionary and use consistent spelling.
Proper nouns (from English or other languages) Zoë, Bogotá, Malmö Retain diacritics wherever possible.
The English diaeresis (New Yorker Style) Coöperate, Zoölogy, Reëlection Avoid.
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