How to Use French Accent Marks

The French alphabet uses the twenty-six letters of the Latin alphabet. It also uses accent marks with certain letters, which are part of the spelling of a word. These diacritical marks are used to modify the sound of the letter with which they appear or to distinguish the word that includes it from another homonym. Thus we have the definite singular feminine article la which is distinct from the adverb of place and we have the past participle parlé which is distinct from parle, the first and third person singular active indicative and subjunctive forms, as well as the second person imperative form of the verb parler. These examples illustrate why French accent marks are an important component in spelling, as they alter the meaning that words take on, even when these words contain the same letters.

We see above two examples of commonly used French accent marks, the accent grave {ˋ} and the accent aigu {ˊ}. In addition to these accent marks, French uses the accent circonflexe {ˆ}, the tréma {¨}, and the cédille {¸}. All but the last are used with vowels and the cédille is only used with the consonant {c}.

The Five French Accent Marks

1- L’accent aigu

The accent aigu {ˊ} is the most commonly used accent mark in French. It appears in words such as éducation, allégresse, and café and is only used with the vowel {e}. The accent aigu over an {e} represents a closed sound, represented as /e/ in IPA. When spelling words aloud, we may refer to it by this sound, or we may refer to its different components, “é accent aigu”.

The {é} ending forms a syllable by itself and is used in the past participle form of verbs from the 1e groupe in French, verbs with the {-er} ending. Examples of these include parlé (as seen above), sauté, écouté, and dégagé. This is also the case for feminine endings of verbs from the 1e groupe, which have a mute {e} following the {é}, as with dégagée.

The accent aigu can be a replacement for the {s} that was used historically after an {e} in certain words, as seen in the Renaissance words estude and escriture, which are now spelled étude and écriture (see Michel de Montaigne’s “Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir”, the twentieth essay in the first volume of his 1588 Essais (in an edition that preserves the original spelling, of course).

2- L’accent grave

The accent grave {ˋ} is used with a, e, and u. It is most commonly used with an e, which indicates an open e sound, /ɛ/ as in the words frère, ère, dernière, amèrement, and parlèrent. As illustrated by these words, it is used in syllables over an {e} when followed by a consonant and {e} muet. This {è} is also used in many words ending in {es}, such as the substantives décès and succès, as well as the preposition dès. In addition, it is used in adverbs ending in {es}, e.g., après, très, and près. Be aware that the plural indefinite article des does not use an accent grave, nor do possessive and demonstrative adjectives, such as mes, tes, and ces. These would also use a closed {e} sound, /e/, (although there are alternate open {e} pronunciations for the adjectives).

The words dès and des show the way in which the accent grave is used to distinguish certain words graphically that are pronounced in the same way. It is used with the letter {a} to distinguish the preposition à from the third person singular active indicative form of the verb avoir: a. It is also used to distinguish the definite singular feminine article la from the adverb of place , as mentioned above.

The accent grave also distinguishes the conjunction ou from the preposition or adverb . Compare “On va manger des salades ou des sandwichs” with “Où sont mes clefs?” and “Je me souviens bien de l’époque où on avait des cabines téléphoniques partout”.

3- L’accent circonflexe

We use the accent circonflexe {ˆ} over all of the vowels. It is traditionally used over vowels having a long sound, although this long sound is becoming less and less distinct from the shorter vowel sounds and there is a movement toward dropping the accent circonflexe from French writing. It is still useful to be familiar with the accent circonflexe, since you will at least need to recognize it when reading.
Many words containing an accent circonflexe use one over a vowel that was historically followed by the letter {s}. Take a look at the following French words and see if you can figure out their English cognates:


Conversely, see if you can find the modern spelling of the word “goust”, found in Montaigne’s essay mentioned above.

We often find the {â} followed by a {ch}, e.g., lâche, tâche, gâche or {t}, when pronounced /t/, e.g., honnête (as seen above), gâteau, and pâtisserie, but not when pronounced /s/ as in démocratie or /sj/ as in natation.

We find an {ê} followed by {m} in many words as well, e.g., même, extrême, blême, but not in ordinal numbers, which use the accent grave rather than the accent circonflexe before the letter {m}, e.g., deuxième, troisième, huitième.

We find {î} in conjugations of verbs like naître, paraître, and croître in which the {i} precedes the letter {t}, giving us words such as naît, paraîtront, and croîtra.

We find the circonflexe over the letter {o} when preceding {-le}, {-me} and {-ne}, as with pôle, dôme, and aumône. We also find it in possessive pronouns, such as le nôtre, le vôtre, which are distinct, both graphically and phonetically from the possessive adjectives notre and votre. Compare notre /nͻtᴚ/ with nôtre /notᴚ/.

We find the circonflexe over the letter {u} to distinguish it from other homonyms, as with the partitive masculine singular article du and the past participle , the noun mur and the adjective mûr, the second person singular pronoun tu and the past participle , and the preposition sur and the adjective sûr.

4- Le tréma

We use the tréma {¨} for diaræsis – to show the separation of two vowels into two syllables as in the given name Gaëlle or the plant maïs. We can contrast the latter with the conjunction mais, which only has one syllable. The tréma is used with the vowels {e}, {i}, and {u} and, in proper names, with the semivowel {y}, as with the L’Haÿ-les-Roses, a commune in the Île-de-France region.

In cases in which a {u} follows a {g}, but is pronounced as a separate syllable and not used along with the {g} to represent the hard g sound /ɡ/, we use a tréma, e,g., aiguë, pronounced /egy/ and not /ɛg/, which is written aigue. Note that after the spelling reforms of 1990, the former is written aigüe, so that the accent mark is over the pronounced {u} rather than the mute {e} following it. In this case, where would you place the tréma in the exclamation, “aie !” ?

5- La cédille

The cédille {¸} is used below a {c} to represent an /s/ sound, as in the word façon. If you write a {c} with a cédille beneath it very quickly, it often resembles an {s}! We use it for this purpose when a {c} precedes {a}, {o}, or {u}. It is the only accent mark that appears below a letter than above it and it is the only accent mark used with a consonant.

Note that with verbs with {c}’s in their final syllables that produce the sound /s/ in their infinitive forms will continue to do so in their conjugations and participles and that spelling changes will occur accordingly, e.g. commencer, commençons, apercevoir, aperçu, bercer, berçâtes, etc.

At first glance, French accent marks may seem like something extra, or even extraneous, but they are integral to the French writing system. While they might be absent from some email or text messages, this can cause a fair amount of confusion, as they do have specific functions. They can guide you in your pronunciation of words, as with open and closed {e}’s, longer and shorter vowel sounds, and the different parts of speech that they signal by their presence or absence. In this way, they can be a useful guide in the way phrases are woven together and in the various sequences of sounds that are characteristic of the French language.

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