Salut salut, dear French connoisseurs.
Today we’ll take a peek at some of the French language (and our keyboard)’s most well-hidden secrets: the French accent marks.
Namely: acute, grave, tréma/dieresis, circumflex and cedilla.
You know, these little guys: ï à é û ç
Through this post, you’ll finally understand the mysteries of:
- Why, how, where these accent marks are used
- Where to find these mysterious signs on your QWERTY keyboards (i.e. English-language keyboard, as opposed to French-language AZERTY keyboards)
This is a fairly long post, so you can jump to each section using these links:
Looking for the best tools to learn French?
See this list of top French resources.
Here’s a great video on the topic in case you prefer something a little more visual:
The acute accent mark in French ( é )
Let us begin with (é).
Grammar lovers’ favorite.
Its pronunciation isn’t that hard, but gosh do we hate that one, we the raconteurs, the expressive, when comes the time to stop the chatters and open the chatrooms.
I’m a post-grad native French speaker, and yet I need to triple-check anything I write in French for these huge tiny little ( é ) oversights.
Confusions between ( é ) and other spellings keeping in their wallet the same phonetic ID ( ai, ait, aie, est, et, er) are probably the most common species of spelling mistakes you’ll see on any average French person’s Facebook or Instagram timeline, let alone comment section.
Tout ça pour dire que (all this to say that), one: taming ( é ) isn’t a walk in the park, but the day you’ll have done so, you’ll earn my people’s eternal respect; and two : when it comes to spelling, trust books and some of the rules you’re about to learn, but not your French pen pal’s 3 a.m. twitter DM.
That having been said, let’s jump into it.
Oh, but before anything, some de rigueur facts.
Acute accent facts:
IPA Phonetic symbol : [e] (what’s IPA?)
How the French call it: L’accent aigu (“AXAN TÉGU”)
Where you’ll find it: that one’s fussy; it only hovers over the letter “E”.
Did someone say rules?
French acute accent ( é ) essential rules
The ( é ) serves 2 unfortunately-not-so-distinct purposes:
- Changing the pronunciation of the letter “e”
- Changing the meaning and grammatical function of a word
Acute accent pronunciation
“é” is pronounced like the “e” in “elementary” (not “ee” as in “ebook” or “e” as in “hotel”).
Warning: don’t let acutely accentuated French loanwords fool you – (é) is NOT pronounced like in Café and Résumé in English.
Nor is it, like some suggest, pronounced AY as in Tray or Parlay.
Pronounced the English way, these words fail to sound French the microsecond the ( i ) sound leaves our oral cavity.
French: café KAH-FÉ
English: café KAH-FÉ-I
Say Cafebruary (café + February, removing the “fé”part) a few times, then say it again but stop at ( é ), don’t pronounce “bruary”. This way, you will accustom your vocal cords to saying a crisp, pure French ( é ) without any ( i ) piggybacking it.
Mastering this pronunciation will be critical for your future French spelling endeavors, as it will be your best shot at distinguishing é, è and e.
(Rules do exist though – we’ll see some in a later section. But believe me, to ace your essay, those aren’t what you’ll want to rely on.)
Good news: in many words, ( é ) doesn’t have any other function than a phonetic one.
Bad news: in many other words, ( é ) possesses a grammatical function.
Simply put, it’s the equivalent of the suffix ( -ed ) in English in its past participle/adjective usage, but not it’s simple past one:
|It closes at 5. (verb)||Ça ferme à 5 heures. (verb)|
|It has closed. (past participle)||Ça a fermé. (past participle)|
|It is closed. (adjective)||C’est fermé. (adjective)|
|It closed at 5. (Simple past)||Ça ferma à 5 heures. (Simple past) *|
*In spoken language, more casual than written, the French simple past form is almost never employed, replaced by the passé composé form (resembling present perfect), which gives us: “Cela a fermé à cinq heures.”
So far so good?
Last, let’s see why this accent mark causes so many spelling mistakes.
As you may already know, French verbs are split into 3 groups.
The infinitive form of the 1st group verbs ends in -ER which is pronounced…”É”.
|Manger: to eat – Pronunciation: “MAN-JÉ”|
|Mangé: eaten – Pronunciation: “MAN-JÉ”|
Same pronunciation, same meaning (or nearly the same), different spellings and grammatical roles.
Starting to see where the problem is?
Well, let’s solve it once and for all.
-É VS -ER: Avoiding spelling mistakes
Luckily, you possess a weapon monolingual French speakers don’t have in store when trying to differentiate these forms: you can translate the phrase into English.
Translate the word in your head, and if you get:
- The infinitive form (eat, go…): write the (-é) form.
- The ( -ed ) form (created, divided, located…) or irregular past participle form (eaten, gone…): write the ( -é ) form.
Je l’ai vu manger/mangé(?) mon gâteau.
Here, we have: I saw him EAT my cake.
Je l’ai vu manger mon gâteau.
(infinitive form / You wouldn’t say “I saw him eaten my cake”)
|J’ai parlé/parler au serveur.||I have ___ to the server. (speak)|
|Il a continué de regardé/regarder la télé.||He continued to ___ TV. (watch)|
|Le magasin est fermé/fermer.||The store is ___. (close)|
|J’ai parlé au serveur.||I have spoken to the server. (participle)|
|Il a continué de regarder la télé.||He continued to watch TV. (infinitive)|
|Le magasin est fermé.||The store is closed. (participle/adjective)|
How to type the acute accent mark on your keyboard
- Install the US-International Keyboard (see video below)
- Choose it as your preferred language
- Press ‘ (single quote) then e
Note: The United States-International Keyboard isn’t a physical keyboard, it’s a keyboard setting. Besides buying an AZERTY keyboard, installing this is probably your best option out there. It allows you to keep the best of both worlds: keeps your keyboard as a normal QWERTY while making it easier for you to type accent marks.
However, there will be a couple of differences you’ll need to adjust to. Mainly, when you’ll want to type quote/single quote (” / ’), if followed by a vowel, it will automatically accentuate it. To avoid that, you’ll have to press the space bar in between the 2 aforementioned keys.
Example: to type “j’ai”, you’ll have to push (J) (‘) (space bar) (a) (i) . Omitting to hit the space bar would produce this result: “jái”.
Push “e” and the “option” key simultaneously, release both keys then press “e” again.
Done! You now master the infamous É.
The grave accent mark in French ( ` )
Grave accent facts:
How the French call it: L’accent grave.
Where you’ll find it: L’accent grave appears on three vowels: à, ù, è.
French grave accent essential rules
You probably won’t believe your eyes as you’ll read the following: the grave accent is both easy to pronounce and free from any semantico-grammatical intricacies!
And you’d be right. È is just as much of a tortured mind as É.
Below is something I concocted to relieve everyone’s confusion.
Above A and U ( À / Ù ): semantico-grammatical intricacies
IPA Phonetic symbol of ù: [y] (Yes, weird. Not to be confused with “y”.)
IPA Phonetic symbol of ù: [a]
On U and A this accent is mainly there to help distinguish words spelled identically and give a different role in the sentence (no change of pronunciation involved).
- Ou (or)
- Où (where)
Le Dimanche, il va au restaurant où il boit juste un café.
On Sundays, he goes to the restaurant where he just drinks coffee.
Le Dimanche, il va au restaurant, ou il boit juste un café.
On Sundays, he goes to the restaurant, or he just drinks coffee.
Tricky, hey? But hold on, you haven’t even seen half of it yet.
- La (the – feminine form)
- Là (there)
J’ai trouvé la voiture ! Elle est là.
I found the car! It’s there.
- a (has – verb)
- à (in, at, to – preposition)
Je vais à Sydney.
I’m going to Sydney.
Il a 3 appartements à Paris.
He has 3 apartments in Paris.
Note 1: do not mistake the English article “a” (“un”/”une” in French) for the French “a/à”.
Although, English and French having waltzed and exchanged lexical genes so profusely over centuries, it is with no surprise that traces of the French “à” can be found in some English prepositions :
- aside <-> à côté (côté meaning side)
- apart <-> à part
Note 2: Où is the only word containing ( ù ).
Note 3: When a “ou/où” confusion is highly possible during a conversation, French speakers tend to turn “ou” into “ou alors”.
Il prend des photos où il peint.
He takes photos where* he paints.*
Il prend des photos, ou alors il peint.
He takes photos or* he paints.*
Note 4: ( à ) can also appear in words that don’t have homonyms.
Well, you know what? I’ll just share with you all the ( à ) words we use on a regular basis :
|à||in, at, to|
|au-delà / par-delà||beyond|
|çà et là||here and there|
|voilà… (mon cheval/le train/mon vaisseau spatial…)||here is/comes… (my horse/the train/my spaceship…)|
|Et voilà !||Voilà / Here we go!|
|Revoilà… (mon cheval/le train/mon vaisseau spatial…)||Here is/comes…(my horse/the train/my spaceship…) again.|
|En deçà de… (400 euros de revenue par jour, notre restaurant perd de l’argent)||Below…(400 euros of revenue per day, our restaurant is losing money)|
IPA Phonetic symbol: [ɛ]
On the E the grave accent doesn’t change any meaning of any word, it’s only there to inform you that this “e” really really wants to be pronounced [ɛ].
That is to say, like the “e” in “hotel”.
“But, are you probably thinking, why won’t this darn letter ( e ) be happy just from being itself and stop looking for superfluous accessories?”
I’ll tell you why: because ( e ) is a needy little wimp that lacks personality. Without accent, it’s malleable, got its finger in every pie. Highly influenced by the consonants surrounding it:
Emmener AN-MUH-NÉ (take someone somewhere)
Verte VÈRT* (green)
AN, UH, É, È… One letter, four sounds (and there are more possibilities…).
*This is what we call the silent ( e ). It is usually used to turn a masculine word into its feminine version :
Vert (masculine ) / Verte (feminine)
So, all in all, accent marks on the ( e ) aren’t completely that bad: when you read an ( è ) or an ( é ) you know for sure how it is pronounced.
The main difficulty arises when you have to perform the opposite task: listen and write (or just write). Let’s see how to figure these kind of things out.
How to know when to use È
Once upon a time, a wise old blogger let you in on a linguistic secret: there are rules to knowing when to write E, È or É.
Recall well though, if you want to get these spelling scores and respect levels up, pronunciation surpasses rules.
Still wanna take a peek?
D’accord, ainsi soit-il. (Alright, so be it.)
|RULE1 : No Accent (E)||VS||RULE 2: Accent (É/È)|
|Divide French words into syllables, when a syllable containing an (e) ends in a consonant: no accent!|
Correct CO-RECTMerci MER-CI
|When a syllable ends in an ( e ): crown that ( e ) with either accent.|
Célébrité CÉ-LÉ-BRI-TÉ (celebrity)
Spécialité SPÉ-CIA-LI-TÉ (Speciality)
|RULE 3: Grave Accent (È)||VS||RULE 4: Acute Accent (É)|
|( e ) takes the grave accent when the following syllable contains a silent ( e ).||If the following syllable doesn’t contain a silent ( e ), write “é” :|
|Mère MÈ-RE (Mother)||Élément É-LÉ-MENT (element)|
|Père PÈ-RE (Father)||Prétendre PRÉ-TEN-DRE (to claim)|
|Lève LÈ-VE (Lifting)|
|Mène MÈ-NE (Leading)|
These look pretty awesome huh? Yeah, they do, they do…but… that’s the time you realize something ain’t right and say:
- Oh wait, doesn’t the first rule contradict the third one? In MÈ-RE, the second syllable ends in a vowel. So, according to the first rule, ( e ) should be accentuated, right?
Yeah, but that’s because… that word ends in a silent ( e ), these are exceptions.
Oh, and so are the adverbs ending in –ement, with regards to rule 2 (oh, and except for élément of course, which is not an adverb).
|Correctement CO-REC-TE-MENT (not “correctément”) – correctly|
|Parfaitement PAR-FAI-TE-MENT (not “parfaitément”) – perfectly|
Oh and while we are at it, another few hundred words just don’t follow rule 2.
And some others rule 3.
And some just disrespect all of them as a whole:
Médecin MÉ-DE-CIN (not MÉ-DÉ-CIN, nor MÈ-DE-CIN) – doctor
Come on! Why? Why call them rules at all then?
Well, you know how we are right? The French. Our protests, our guillotine, general disrespect for the law and the order… Our language is no different: it likes its rules small, quiet and frequently trampled down.
But don’t you worry, see this writer’s got a plan for you.
Let me just tell you how French speakers really go about this whole E/È/É thingy.
First: we trust our ears.
The sounds corresponding to (é) -as in “elementary”- and (è) -as in “hotel”- are fairly distinguishable.
The silent (e) is…well, silent.
Just keep in mind that when used at the end of a word, the consonant that precedes it is pronounced.
Vert – silent consonant : VER
Verte – pronounced consonant : VERT
Remains the plain ( e ), but you already know it, remember? It’s the one in “Je suis” (I am).
How to pronounce the plain “E” perfectly.
“e” is pronounced like an English “uh”, only slightly more low-pitched. Bring the first “a” of “amazing” a little down and you’ll have it right where you want it.
By now, you can identify (é), (è) and the silent and plain ( e )s.
The only difficulty that’s left to overcome is when ( e ) sounds like ( è ).
permanent – French pronunciation: PÈR-MA-NAN
hotel – French pronunciation: HO-TÈL
Let me share with you a practical method to solve that issue.
Out of a trillion rules, sub-rules and grand-sub-rules, I selected 3 that are overall simple and cover a lot of ground.
This is a genuine application of the Pareto Principle, also called 80/20 rule:
It should help you solve about 80% of these e/è/é dilemmas.
For the remaining 20%, I guess it’d take more time learning the rules regulating them than learn the words one by one. A good way to painlessly do that would be to type as often as possible on your smartphone or laptop having French suggestions and spell checks on. By repeatedly being corrected, your mind will let these spellings penetrate its deeper levels and before you know it your orthographe will be spotless.
In languages, pain-free repetition makes perfect.
How to type the grave accent mark on your keyboard
Press ` (to the left of 1), then your vowel.
Push Option and ` at the same time, then release both keys and press your vowel.
The tréma accent mark: ë,ï,ü
Let’s just get this one over with:
- Noël (Christmas)
- Hawaï (Hawaii)
- Loïc (Loic – common first name)
- Naïf / Naïve (Naïve)
- Capharnaüm (Shambles, a mess)
- Israël (Israel)
That’s about it, all the tréma-comprising words you need to know. And tréma accents don’t modify anything really.
They are just pretty little dots you (very) occasionally sprinkle here and there on your sentences like that ultra-spicy paprika powder your 2-year old nephew seasoned your Christmas cake with, you know, for decoration…
Fine, yeah, there is more to it. I might’ve gotten ahead of myself just a tad.
Time for seriousness.
Tréma basic facts:
How the French call it : Le tréma
Where you’ll find it: Mostly on “i” (ï), occasionally on “u” (ü) and “e”(ë).
French tréma accent essential rules
Tréma accents are pretty rare in French; they fulfill a very limited function: changing the pronunciation of a 2-vowel sound.
Let’s have a look at the word “naïf (masculine noun) / naïve (feminine)” (“naive” in English).
Well, if you survived that soporific French pronunciation class you may have taken the other day, you might remember the association of A and I, “AI”, produces the sound É. (Or È, according to regional accents).
- Lait (Milk) as in “Labor” (LÉ/LÈ-I-BU-R)
- J’ai (I have) as in “Jay” (JÉ/JÈ-I)
Following this rule, “naive” would be pronounced “NÉV” as in “NEVER”, if it weren’t for the tréma above the “i”.
AÏ generates the sound “AH-I”.
This little language paprika sprinkle is giving us a completely new pronunciation of the word, sounding very much like its English equivalent: “NA-I-F/V”.
Same goes for the other words of the list:
Hawaï* becomes “AH-WA-I” (and not “AH-WÉ”). And remember, the H is silent in French.
*Hawaii is also an accepted spelling for that word in French.
AU forming the sound O (as it often does in English, e.g. “Australia”), Capharnaüm becomes “KAH-FAR-NAH-UM” (and not “KAH-FAR-NO-M”).
|Naïf / Naïve||NA-I-F / NA-I-V|
Note: “ë” is usually pronounced È, but it can be silent when it indicates the feminine version of some rare adjectives:
|MASCULINE ADJECTIVE||FEMININE ADJECTIVE|
|Contigu KON-TEE-GU* (adjacent, adjoining)||Contiguë KON-TEE-GU*|
|Exigu E-GZEE-GU* (cramped, exiguous)||Exiguë E-GZEE-GU*|
|Ambigu AM-BEE-GU* (ambiguous)||Ambiguë AM-BEE-GU*|
|Aigu É-GU* (acute)||Aiguë É-GU*|
* “U” to be pronounced the French way. (For some practice, Google-translate “uniform” and listen carefully to how the “u” is pronounced in French).
How to type the tréma accent on your keyboard
PC (United States –International Keyboard)
Type ” (shift + ‘), then press your vowel.
Example: ë = shift+’, then press “e”.
Press the option key and the letter u simultaneously, then e, i or u.
Example: ü = option + u, then u again.
The circumflex accent mark in French ( ^ )
Now, what is this little hat-shaped accent mark that the French cherish so much?
Well, the circumflex accent “^” in most cases replaced the letter “s” that was following these vowels in many words, in their Old French versions (which, guess what, sometimes sure look like some of our very Modern English words!)
What am I talking about?
See for yourself:
Looking familiar? Yep, Hospital, Forest, Isle (island), pasta.
Over time, these “S”s disappeared, in favor of what French primary school teachers call “le petit chapeau” – the circumflex accent mark.
Circumflex basic facts:
How the French call it: L’accent circonflexe
Where you’ll find it: On most vowels: â, ê, î, ô and û.
Circumflex accent essential rules
À part the fact it occasionally replaced the letter S, l’accent circonflex is:
- pronunciation: a long vowel marker
- grammar: used to distinguish homophones
Pronunciation: the circumflex as a long vowel marker
The vowel A when accentuated with the circumflex accent is supposed to be prolonged when pronounced:
- Grâce GRAA-CE (grace)
- Âcre AA-CRE (acrid)
The thing is, if you hang out with people under 60 years of age, you’ll almost never hear an actual pronunciation difference between A and Â.
The main reason for that is: whether you pronounce A long or short doesn’t change the meaning of the word.
Other purposes of the circumflex in French
|votre… (my…)||le nôtre (ours)|
|votre… (your… – plural)||le vôtre (yours – plural)|
Distinguishing other words:
|Tache (stain)||tâche (task)|
|Mur (wall)||Mûr (Mature, ripe)|
|Sur (one, over)||Sûr (sure, certain)|
How to type the circumflex accent on your keyboard
PC (United States –International Keyboard)
Press Shift + 6, then your vowel.
Press Option + I, then release both keys and press your vowel.
The cedilla accent in French (ç)
At last, the cedilla. The little cutie of the bunch.
That one won’t cause you too much headache.
Cedilla basic facts:
IPA Phonetic symbol: [s]
How the French call it: La cédille
Where you’ll find it: No headache here – Cedilla is a root that grows only underneath the C.
French cedilla essential rules
The cedilla does not have a grammatical function.
However, there is one case it systematically causes grammatical errors ; that’s what we’ll see in the next section.
Pronunciation of the cedilla
So, what does the cedilla do?
Just like in English, the letter C followed by A, O and U is pronounced like a K (catastrophe, coopération, cumin) whereas C followed by E, I or Y is normally pronounced “S” (excellent, citrus, Cyrano).
Well, the cedilla transforms that K sound into an “s” one:
- Ça (this) – pronunciation : “SA”
- Sa (his/her) – pronunciation: “SA”
Now let’s practice a little to avoid any confusion and unfortunate grammar mistakes.
|Sa/Ça fait longtemps.||It’s been a while.|
|Sa/Ça voiture est blanche.||Her (or his) car is white.|
|J’ai mangé ça/sa.||I ate this.|
|J’ai mangé ça/sa pomme.||I ate his (or her) apple.|
Common vocabulary containing the cedilla accent
- Rançon (ransom)
- Glaçon (ice cube)
- Garçon (Garcon/Boy)
- Fiançailles (engagement, as in before marriage)
- Déçu (disappointed)
- Reçu (Received)
Are we good?
A last section, and we’ll be done with this satanés (darn) French accent marks!
How to type the cedilla accent on your keyboard
PC (United States –International Keyboard)
Type ‘ then C.
Press Option + C simultaneously.
French accent marks are easy!
I hope that clarified French accent marks for you. 🙂
Was there anything I should have pointed out?
Leave a comment below.