A Diacritical Look at Accent Marks in English

What is a grave accent used for? What diacritical marks do we use in English? Should we use them or are they just a hassle? And why are they so darn hard to type?

The grave accent is used to show that you pronounce a vowel that is not normally pronounced.

David is a learnèd man.

The grave accent is the one that goes down (because we read right-to-left). To help you remember what it does, think of it as that it’s a grave matter that you pronounce this vowel.

The acute accent is used to show that you stress a syllable not normally stressed. It can also be used to clarify stress for learners of English.


[Can you find one? Anecdotal claim on Wikipedia is that it’s in poetry…]

ESL (in an instructional book or specially marked text):

The rébel rose up to rebél against the king.

The acute accent is the one that goes up. To help you remember what it does, let the alliteration* get you to think more about the word accent than the word acute, as the headword is more basic or important—and that one meaning of accent is ‘stress’.

Really I see that these purposes could be combined—they’re not mutually exclusive. In learnèd man, the second syllable of learnèd is secondarily stressed and the vowel is thus not reduced (which we associate with stress anyway). The context makes it clear whether it’s purely an exception to vowel reduction or a poetic shift of stress. The ESL context would be even more obvious to the reader.

So then whether you would use the acute accent or the grave accent wouldn’t matter. It really would be a typographical preference. That is if we just accepted that they’re the same. Until then, they do make a typographical difference. For those typographers and designers out there: Getting it right helps you look better, more knowledgeable and caring of the details (which is great PR for a designer).

You might be clamoring about the other most obvious use of acute and grave accents—”correctly” spelling imported French words. French does use both of the them, along with the circumflex, quite frequently and using them shows that you pay attention, realize its a foreignish word, and that you are culturally aware. Diacritical marks should not be our measure of any of these things, especially for words as common as résumé. It’s an English word now and using either an acute or grave accent to indicate that you pronounce the e on the end would suffice, pragmatically speaking. It’s really just an added bonus you can use to show off that you’re globally aware and well-read.

The umlaut goes the same way for German words. It has also, though, been used to show that a repeated vowel is repronounced and is not a digraph.

We need to coöperate on this project.

Again this purpose falls under the pronunciation and stress sort of uses for the acute and grave accent, and is also not mutually exclusive of them. So in all, we really only need one diacritical mark in English and it can be whichever of the three you choose.

Lastly, it’s important to note the distinction that when you are writing out a French, German, or other foreign word or name that has not been borrowed into English, it does indeed show an important cultural respect and topical specificity if you spell the word endemically, diacritical marks and all.

*Alliteration can be consonant or assonant. Assonance is not strictly word-initial, so alliteration is the proper term for same word-initial sound, especially in adjacent words.


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