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Diacritic marks: When and how to use accents in grammar

Posted by Wendy Wood on 16th February , 2021 in Grammar
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Do we really need diacritic marks anymore? Are they merely fancy or truly fundamental to understanding?

You might be thinking “whoa, I don’t even know what a diacritic mark is!” Trust me, I didn’t know either until I started researching “accent marks”.

Diacritic marks, or simply diacritics, are those small symbols added to letters — or even sometimes attached to a letter — to indicate the letter should be treated differently. They are those marks in words like piñata, résumé, lamé, façade, naïve, and many more, that show a letter has a particular pronunciation or should be stressed.

So, back to whether diacritics are necessary, ornamental, or just annoying. The answer is yes.

The case against using diacritic marks

You could write that you went to the local cafe and had a cafe latte, and no-one would misunderstand.

But what if you wrote that you wanted a rose with dinner? Do you mean the perfumed kind or my favourite kind, rosé? (A friend of mine would continue to be ambiguous and answer, “the pale-red version”.)

If you wrote that you were going to resume writing your resume, readers could eventually understand the meaning, but they may need to re-read the sentence in order to do so.

The case for using diacritic marks

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) says, “Except in linguistic studies or other highly specialised works, a system using as few diacritics as are needed to aid pronunciation is easier on readers, publisher, and author”. CMOS goes on to suggest the forms of words listed in the latest editions of dictionaries are usually preferred by readers.

When a diacritic occurs in someone’s name, it’s respectful to include it. Back in 2019, Beyoncé even released an “accent on the é tee” to make her preferred spelling perfectly clear.

I noticed as I was writing this, Microsoft Word is helpful in adding diacritics when it feels they are necessary. But like readers, Word struggles with the homonyms. For any word with diacritic marks, I offer my mantra: look it up in your dictionary!

A word of warning

However, accents are more likely to fall victim to gremlins when they’re posted online. You may end up with ugly copy containing random symbols like &%!^ which tend to make people think of swear words. Use your judgement when using diacritics and remember that readability is the goal.

Wendy Wood


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