Which Letters Really Need Accent Marks?

Fancy? Fundamental? Or just plain frustrating to deal with? Accent marks draw a mixed reaction from people. 

So, do we really need them? Let’s take a look. 

What is an accent mark, anyway?

Accent marks are diacritic marks, which are added to a letter or character to set them apart from others and “give it a particular phonetic value, to indicate stress, etc.”

That makes sense, as the adjective diacritical means “serving to distinguish.” Other diacritic marks include cedilla, tilde, circumflex, and macron.

There are two different types of accent marks: acute and grave.

The acute accent, which slants toward the right, is used to indicate that the vowel over which it’s placed should be stressed the most. For example, détente

A grave accent, on the other hand, slants toward the left and is placed over a vowel that should be pronounced with a low or falling pitch. For example, vis-à-vis.

Are accent marks really that important?

While most words with accent marks come from other languages—Spanish and French, predominantly—some of them have become part of the English language, too. The accent marks remain, and, in some cases, are necessary to differentiate between words that are otherwise spelled alike. 

For example, you wouldn’t want to tell someone you’re going to bring them a lame shirt when you what you mean is a lamé shirt. And on a hot summer day, a nice rosé sounds a lot better than a rose with dinner … though that might be nice, too. Other examples that could be confusing include resume vs. résumé and expose vs. exposé—same letters, but different meanings and pronunciations with the accent marks. 

That said, over time, we tend to lose accent marks, as the pronunciations become commonplace. For example, in most cases cafe is perfectly acceptable for café in English, and you rarely see the city of San Jose written with an accent mark. 

When it comes to someone’s given name, however, not including the accent mark may be akin to misspelling the name or calling someone by a nickname they don’t use (Becky instead of Rebecca or Jimmy instead of James). Beyoncé just wouldn’t be the same as Beyonce, right? Queen Bey even released an “accent on the é” T-shirt to drive home the point.  

In some states, such as California, however, parents are banned from giving their babies names that include accents and other diacritical marks on birth certificates and official documents. Instead, they’re limited to “using the 26 letters of the English alphabet,” though apostrophes still somehow make the grade. Other states allow accents, but things could get tricky if you’re born in a state that allows them and then move and attempt to do paperwork in one that doesn’t.

Why are they banned? In California, some say it goes back to 1986 and Proposition 63, which made English the state’s official language. However, many argue that such laws are simply antiquated, and modern keyboards negate any justifications about accent marks being too difficult to input. Some say such laws are downright unconstitutional.

Are the days of diacritical marks numbered? Perhaps. They were previously used in Old English, but largely disappeared after the printing press came to Britain. While still a vital part of many languages around the world, some language professionals are recommending some diacritical marks are unnecessary

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How to type accent marks

In the meantime, accents are still an essential part of our written language, and they should be included in many cases, particularly when it comes to people’s names. The simplest way to insert them is to use your computer’s shortcut keys. (No, don’t try to ink them in after you print out your work.) Here’s how:

On a Mac

Acute accent mark: Press option and the letter E at the same time. Then release and type the letter above which you want the accent mark to appear. Voilà

Grave accent mark: Press option and the grave accent mark (upper left-hand corner sharing the key with the tilde) at the same time, then release and type the letter over which you want the accent mark to appear.

On a PC

Acute accent mark: Press control and the apostrophe key at the same time. Then release and type the letter over which you want the accent mark to appear. 

Grave accent mark: Press control and the accent mark (upper left-hand corner sharing a key with the tilde), then release and type the letter over which you want the accent mark to appear. 

While they may take a few extra taps on your keyboard, accent marks are still important in some cases. While we’re likely to see them slip away over time as the world continues its digital journey, but for now we should accept accents and use them appropriately. And if you’re not sure if a word needs one or not, we’re always here to help.

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