Friday, March 1, 2013

accent marks: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday, March 1, 2013

accent marks  
 In what follows, “accent mark” will be used in a loose sense to include all diacritical marks that guide pronunciation. Operating systems and programs differ in how they produce accent marks, but it’s worth learning how yours works. Writing them in by hand afterwards looks amateurish.

Words adopted from foreign languages sometimes carry their accent marks with them, as in “fiancé,” “protégé,” and “cliché.” As words become more at home in English, they tend to shed the marks: “Café” is often spelled “cafe.” Unfortunately, “résumé” seems to be losing its marks one at a time.

Many computer users have not learned their systems well enough to understand how to produce the desired accent and often insert an apostrophe (curled) or foot mark (straight) after the accented letter instead: “cafe’” or “cafe'.” This is both ugly and incorrect. The same error is commonly seen on storefront signs.

So far we’ve used examples containing acute (right-leaning) accent marks. French and Italian (but not Spanish) words often contain grave (left-leaning) accents; in Italian it’s a caffè. It is important not to substitute one kind of accent for the other.

The diaeresis over a letter signifies that it is to be pronounced as a separate syllable: “noël” and “naïve” are sometimes spelled with a diaeresis, for instance. The umlaut, which looks identical, modifies the sound of a vowel, as in German Fräulein (girl), where the accent mark changes the “frow” sound of Frau (woman) to “froy.” Rock groups like Blue Öyster Cult scattered umlauts about nonsensically to create an exotic look.

Spanish words not completely assimilated into English—like piñata and niño—retain the tilde, which tells you that an N is to be pronounced with a Y sound after it.

In English-language publications accent marks are often discarded, but the acute and grave accents are the ones most often retained.


  1. Dear Professor Paul Brians,

    Excellent blog, very useful indeed. Thank you very much for your daily lessons!

    Just a brief reminder.
    When you say:
    "Spanish words not completely assimilated into English — like piñata and niño — retain the tilde, which tells you that an N is to be pronounced with a Y sound after it." — well... may I remind you that the Spanish "ñ" (as in "niño") is pronounced the same way as the French "gn" (as in "Dartagnan", "champagne", "cognac" or "champignons"...), as the Portuguese "nh" (as in "manhã", "conhecer", "carinho") and as the Italian "gn" (as in "gnocchi", "campagna", "lasagne", agnello"...).

    One of the most interesting things about languages is the way sound is understood. It's amazing. For us, Latins, there is no "Y" sound after "ñ", "gn" or "nh". For the English speakers, apparently, there is...

    Finally, Portuguese also includes grave accent marks, but only in a few cases, denoting direction (as in "to + the" or "to + that, that one, those").

    Best regards,

    Isabel Belchior

    1. Thank you for your insight. Trying to explain phonetics across languages is nearly impossible, so we rely on these cognates. I'll bet there is a subtle difference between the way a typical English speaker pronounces the "nya" sound in "Kenya" and the way a Spanish speaker pronounces the "ña" sound in "niña," but we learn in Spanish class to treat that "ña" as if it were "nya."

      This reminds me of living in Japan, where "L" and "R" are not distinct sounds. We always hear about how difficult words like "squirrel" are for native Japanese speakers, but for English speakers learning Japanese there is also the basic difficulty of correctly pronouncing the sound of what is represented as "R" when Japanese is transcribed using a Roman alphabet. The fact is that there is no English sound you can use; that "R" cannot be pronounced as an English "R" with the tongue at the back of the mouth. Then again, moving the tongue all the way forward and hitting the roof of the mouth, as in an English "L" is not quite correct either. It is somewhere in between. I once had a student named "Reiko" (using the Roman transcription) who requested to be called "Leiko" because that sounded much closer to the correct pronunciation, which in fact would be something like a clipped "rr" sound (just barely touching on the rolled "R" sound) in Spanish.