Should You Use Accent Marks?

By Mark Nichol

To accent, or not to accent? That is a good question.

Whether ’tis nobler to include diacritical marks (also called diacritics) is open to debate. Here are the arguments:

Most publishers who go by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (and that’s most publishers) follow that resource’s lead: Any word it lists with an acute (forward-leaning) or grave (backward-leaning) accent mark, or a tilde (in Spanish, placed over the n) or umlaut (in German, sometimes used with u or o) or cedilla (in French, the little tail on a c) or any of several other markers for pronunciation and emphasis, retains that diacritical mark.

Others are selective about which ones they keep, or omit them altogether: Everybody knows cafe is pronounced “ka-fay,” not “kaif,” the reasoning goes, so the accent mark is extraneous, and who wants to keep track of when the last letter of “San Jose” is accented (when referring to the city in Costa Rica) and when it isn’t (when you mention the one in California) — though the letter is pronounced, not silent, in each case?

Furthermore, words with diacritical marks are just some among many from other languages adopted into English; why not assimilate them into our language by shedding them of all those extraneous appendages?

As with many typographical issues, newspapers are most likely among the printed media to eschew such emphasis. Web sites also tend to avoid them, because many content-management systems require typing a code in place of a letter; thus, café would be typed “café” or “café” (including the semicolon).

Of course, diacritical marks are useful in the case of words such as expose and resume that, depending on their meaning, are pronounced differently, but isn’t the context obvious?

But what about words not adopted into English but often used because their literal meaning is not easily translated, such as übermensch? And do you want to incur the wrath of heavy metal fans by referring to Motley Crue like that, without the ridiculous but requisite umlauts? (I can see the headline now: “Murdered Blogger Had Heckled Hair Band: Death by Spandex.”)

Want my advice? I’ll give it to you anyway: Follow Merriam-Webster. Minimize exceptions. That’s my möttö.

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16 Responses to “Should You Use Accent Marks?”

  • Tony Hearn

    In general I agree. You can always circumvent umlauts by using ‘e’ instead, as the Germans sometimes do (e.g. ‘uebermensch’, ‘muesli, Moebius’ etc.).
    Interesting observation: we print German common nouns in English with lower case initial and not upper as in that language!

  • Rebecca

    I use my judgment with accent marks and refer to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary when I’m in doubt.

  • Alicevee

    The little squiggle beneath the C in a French word is a cedile not a cedilla. That’s probably from Spanish.
    Cafe is usually pronounced kaff in England. I find that disconcerting and believe a diacritical mark would help in this instance.

  • Mark Nichol

    Tony:

    Good point about the ue and oe workarounds, though there’s no equivalent solution for a with an umlaut that I’ve seen (fraeulein?

    Unfortunately, too many writers of English seem to think they are supposed to capitalize nouns — especially job titles and plant and animal names.

  • Mark Nichol

    Alicevee:

    In American English, at least, the word for the name of the c with a tail is cedilla, regardless of in which language it is applied.

  • Emma

    I think words just look better with the diacritic. Even words like “naïveté.”

  • Cecily

    Alicevee, the “kaff” pronunciation of “café” is non-standard or joking in BrE; it’s not the norm.

  • Cassandra

    Naïveté could also be spelled as naivety, though. Although, naïveté looks better, but when using it in an email address or username (as I often do), most websites do not allow letters with diacritical marks to be used, and I think naivety looks better than naivete.

  • Peter

    You can always circumvent umlauts by using ‘e’ instead, as the Germans sometimes do

    In German, not in general (and not even universally in German…the same mark is also used for diaeresis)

    The little squiggle beneath the C in a French word is a cedile not a cedilla. That’s probably from Spanish.

    It is from Spanish, but that’s what it’s called in English (even when talking about its use in French!)

    I prefer to keep any diacritics when using foreign words from a language written in the Latin alphabet; I’m less concerned with languages that are transliterated with diacritics or other odd systems of transliteration (e.g., the use of digits following syllables which some people use to denote tone in Chinese languages), unless there’s some reason to think the reader is likely to understand the language.

    The mark in ‘naïve’ is a diaeresis, avoiding the reading of “ai” as a diphthong, not an “accent mark”, so I’d keep that even though the word is fully integrated into English.

  • James Wakefield

    I don’t like graphic accents creeping into English. By all means steal the words if there is a good use for them, but I wish that people would spell them with close to English approximations, and pronounce these words with only sounds that are available in English. I wish there was a push for phonetic spelling to make English a rational language. There are no official authorities to tell us otherwise so really more people should just start to spell and pronounce all English words rationally.

  • Peter

    There’s nothing particularly ‘rational’ about phonetic spelling. We all speak slightly differently, so if spelling was phonetic we’d have to spell differently, too (moreso than the fairly minor differences between American and rest-of-the-world spelling—itself the result of spelling-reform lunacy). And if we did that, we’d read slower. Which do you do more of: writing or reading?

  • scriveyn

    Mark, in German ae is just as valid as oe or ue for avoiding umlauts. I use these when emailing friends who reside abroad and there is the possibility that umlauts will be garbled by the character translation tables used by software.

  • Peter

    San Jose in California: not written or spoken with an accent? How did you come up with that idea?

  • Mark Nichol

    Perter:

    I am aware that the name of the city of San Jose in California is pronounced “San Ho-ZAY” — by accented, I meant not “pronounced,” but “equipped with a diacritical mark over the e.”

  • Jerry Kaidor

    I was just looking at the website of the City of San Jose ( California ). They are using a grave accent on the trailing e. I find it both ostentatious and annoying….

  • Jacob

    @Jerry Kaidor, whats weird is on a map they don’t spell it like that and no one spells it like that.

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