Whether you're writing an essay for class or an email to a colleague, knowing and using the appropriate French accent marks is essential for proper spelling in French. Accent marks in French change the pronunciation and meaning of the word. To avoid mistakes or confusion, be sure to choose the appropriate marks.
The Five French Accent Marks
There are five French accents; four go with vowels and one goes on the letter C. There are two common ways to learn French accents: memorize the spelling of individual words, including the accent marks, or learn to distinguish between the different sounds a letter makes depending on the accent on it (or lack of an accent). The accented letter é is not pronounced the same as the accented letter è; if you can hear the difference, you'll also know how to spell the word.
|Name of Mark||What It Looks Like||Letters Used With||Example|
|Accent aigu or acute accent||é||Only used with E||étudiant (student)|
|Accent grave or grave accent||à, è, ù||Used with A, E, U||où (where)|
|Accent circonflexe or accent circumflex||â, ê, î, ô,û||A, E, I, O, U||forêt (forest)|
|Accent tréma or umlaut||ë, ï,ü||E, I, U||naïve (naïve)|
|Cedille or cedilla||ç||Only with letter C||garçon (boy)|
Accents Used with Vowels
There are four accent marks used with vowels. These are the accent aigu, accent grave, accent circonflexe, and accent tréma. Accents may change how a word is pronounced or distinguish between two words that are spelled the same but have different meanings.
The accent aigu may be the easiest for students to remember because it is very frequent and can only be used with the letter E. The accent makes the pronunciation of the E change to 'ay'.
Some common words that use an accent aigu include:
- L'école (school)
- Étudier (to study)
- Méchant (mean)
An accent grave may be used only with vowels A, E, and U:
- Austère (austere or stern)
- Où (where)
- À (the preposition 'to')
The accent circonflexe may appear over any vowel and signifies that an S used to be in the word, following the vowel.
- Hôpital (hospital)
- Forêt (forest)
- Embûche (pitfall)
- S'il vous plaît (please)
- Dégâts (damage)
The tréma is also called an umlaut and appears only over the vowels E, I and U. Whenever you see accent tréma, you must pronounce each vowel separately.
Words using the accent tréma include:
- Naïve (naïve, or innocent)
- Noël (Christmas)
- Ambigüe (ambiguous)
Accents Used With Consonants
There is only one French accent mark used with a consonant.
Accent cedille, or the cedilla, is also easy for most students to remember since it's only found under the letter C. The cedilla changes the pronunciation of the letter C from a hard sound to a soft sound.
Look for accent cedille under such words as:
- Garçon (boy)
- Soupçon (misgivings)
How to Type Accent Marks
While learning the accents and where they belong is difficult enough, another challenge is typing the accents on an American keyboard. There are two main ways of doing this in word processing programs: using the insert symbol function, or using alt-codes to insert the accented letters. On the Internet, you can also use html encoding to make your accents appear online.
HTML Code for Accents
When writing blogs or other online content, HTML codes are easy to remember and type. The codes are made up of four parts: an ampersand, the letter you want accented, the type of accent you want, and a semicolon. For example, if you want to type a lowercase E with acute accent, you would type & e acute ; (without the spaces in between). The following chart details all of the forms, but you'll notice that the components are always the same, meaning you don't have to memorize all the forms. In the code category, take the code and add an ampersand before the code and a semicolon after it.
To type any of the above accents as uppercase letters, simply replace the letter in the code with the uppercase version; for example, agrave becomes Agrave.
If you have a good memory for numbers, the alt-codes are a quick way to insert accent marks. While holding down the alt key on your keyboard, press the three numbers (in the order given), and then let off the alt key. Your accented letter will appear.
Unfortunately, because these are numeric, there is another entire set of codes for uppercase letters. This is where the insert-symbol function comes in handy; uppercase accented letters are not as common, making the alt-codes harder to remember.
While this option is easy, it is the most time-consuming option. While those who frequently use accents will want to go with the HTML or alt-codes, for infrequent use the slowness of this option shouldn't be an issue.
In Microsoft Word, place your cursor at the spot where the letter should go. Select the 'insert' menu and choose 'symbol'. Click on the accented letter you wish to insert, and then click 'insert'. Your letter will be inserted where your cursor was when you hit 'insert'.
Typing Accents on a Mac
If you use an Apple Mac computer, the process to add accented letters is a bit different from a Windows PC. You can choose one of two ways to do this.
With the first option, hold down the Option key plus another letter or symbol key. Then, using the following chart, press the letter you need to bring up the correct accent.
|Option + `||à, è, ù|
|Option + e||é|
|Option + i||â, ê, î, ô, û|
|Option + u||ë, ï, ü|
|Option + c (or C)||ç, Ç|
For example, to get the letter à, hold down the Option key and then press the ` key while still holding down Option. Let go of both keys and press the "a" key. This will insert the letter à in your document.
The second way to add an accented letter is to hold the letter you want until a pop-up appears with the different accented options. Under each option will appear a number. You can either use the mouse and choose the accented letter you want or you can type in the number under the corresponding letter.
Tying Accents to Pronunciation
While many beginners think of accent marks as a hassle for writing French, the accents are actually a key to understanding pronunciation. Students may wish to consult a French pronunciation guide not only to learn how to pronounce these accented letters, but also to learn French spelling by recognizing which accent would fit in with the sounds they hear in spoken French.