Lesson 3: Accents

Five different kinds of accent marks are used in written French. In many cases, an accent changes the sound of the letter to which it is added. In others, the accent has no effect on pronunciation. Accents in French never indicate stress (which always falls on the last syllable). The following table lists every French accent mark and the letters with which it can be combined:

accent letters
used
examples
acute accent
(accent aigu)
é only éléphant: elephant
grave accent
(accent grave)
è, à, ù fièvre: fever, là: there, où: where
circumflex
(accent circonflexe)
â, ê, î,
ô, û
gâteau: cake, être: to be, île: island,
chômage: unemployment,
dû: past participle of devoir
diaeresis
(tréma)
ë, ï, ü, ÿ** Noël: Christmas, maïs: corn, aigüe: acute(fem)*
cedilla
(cédille)
ç only français: French
  • *Note: As of the spelling reform of 1990, the diaresis indicating gu is not a digraph on words finishing in guë is now placed on the u in standard (AKA “académie française” French) : aigüe and not aiguë, cigüe and not ciguë, ambigüe and not ambiguë (acute(fem), conium, ambiguous). Since this reform is relatively recent and mostly unknown to laypeople, the two spellings can be used interchangeably.
  • **Note: The letter ÿ is only used in very rare words, mostly old town names like L’Haÿ-Les-Roses, a Paris surburb. This letter is pronounced like ï.

Acute accent – Accent aigu

The acute accent (French, accent aigu) is the most common accent used in written French. It is only used with the letter e and is always pronounced /e/.
One use of the accent aigu is to form the past participle of regular -er verbs.

infinitive past participle
aimer, to love aimé, loved
regarder, to watch regardé, watched

Another thing to note is if you are unsure of how to translate certain words into English from French, and the word begins with é, replace that with the letter s and you will occasionally get the English word, or an approximation thereof:

  • étable –> stable (for horses)
  • école –> scole –> school
  • il étudie –> il studie –> he studies
  • And to combine what you already know about the accent aigu, here is one last example:
    • étranglé (from étrangler) –> stranglé –> strangled

NB: This will not work with every word that begins with é.

Grave accent – Accent grave

à and ù

In the case of the letters à and ù, the grave accent (Fr. accent grave), is used to graphically distinguish one word from another.

without accent grave with accent grave
a (3rd pers. sing of avoir, to have) à (preposition, to, at, etc.)
la (definite article for feminine nouns) (there)
ou (conjunction, or) (where)

è

Unlike à and ù, è is not used to distinguish words from one another. The è is used for pronunciation. In careful speech, an unaccented e is pronounced like the article a in english (a schwa), and in rapid speech is sometimes not pronounced at all. The è is pronounced like the letter e in pet.

Cedilla – Cédille

The cedilla is used only with the letter “c”, and is said to make the “c” soft, making it equivalent to the English and French S.

  • le garçon –> (boy)

French Accents on computers

While French keyboards are available, some French students may need to enter accented characters on an English keyboard. There are two methods of doing so – some modern word processing software allow entering accents using a key combination, while other applications may require using an Alt code.
In supporing word processing software, you can initiate an accent by entering an appropriate key combination.

accent key combination
acute accent
(accent aigu)
CTRL-‘
grave accent
(accent grave)
CTRL-`
circumflex
(accent circonflexe)
CTRL-SHIFT-6
diaeresis
(tréma)
CTRL-;
cedilla
(cédille)
CTRL-,

On applications that do not support the key combinations, the alternate method available to students is to hold down the ALT key, and enter the code number on the keypad. In some applications, you may also need to have the numlock turned on to avoid undesirable effects.

Character code Character code
à 133 À 0192
â 131 Â 0194
ä 132 Ä 142
æ {ae} 145 Æ {ae} 146
œ {oe} 0156 Œ {oe} 0140
ç 135 Ç 128
é 130 É 144
ê 136 Ê 0202
è 138 È 0200
ë 137 Ë 0203
î 140 Î 0206
ï 139 Ï 0207
ô 147 Ô 0212
ù 151 Ù 0217
û 150 Û 0219
ü 129 Ü 154 or 0220
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