French accent marks: A detailed guide to the French diacritics

Celine Segueg

French accent marks are among the defining features of the language, appearing abundantly in any written text. Accent marks in French are integral features of the words in which they appear, so words are spelled incorrectly when they’re omitted.

The French alphabet has the same 26 letters as in English, but certain letters can also take accents. Today we’ll introduce the three accent marks French vowels can take, as well as the two other diacritics that exist in the French alphabet. We’ll also cover the ligatures, which are two letters combined into a single character.

For quick reference, here are all the French accent marks we’ll be introducing:

  • L’accent aigu: é
  • L’accent grave: à, è, ù
  • L’accent circonflexe: â, ê, î, ô, û

The next two aren’t technically considered accent marks in French, but are simply thought of as diacritics. We include them in today’s lesson too:

  • Le tréma: ä, ë, ï, ö, ü, ÿ
  • La cedille: ç

Finally, the last two are known as ligatures, which are two letters joined into one. We’ll round out today’s lesson with an explanation of the two ligatures that exist in the French language:

  • Les ligatures: æ, œ

Read on for the names of French accent marks in English, along with explanations of how each one affects French word pronunciation.

Before we move on though, we’ll just provide a quick list of every single one of these characters for anyone looking for a copy-paste list of French accent marks, diacritics, and ligatures:

à â ä é è ê ë ï ô ö ù û ü ÿ ç æ œ


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Accent marks vs Diacritic marks

We’re really getting into semantics here in asking which marks are accents in French, and which ones are diacritics. For an English speaker, and indeed for most French speakers who aren’t grammarians, all of them can be called accents.

In French grammar, however, only l’accent aigu, l’accent grave, and l’accent circonflexe are considered accents. Le tréma and la cedille are just diacritics. But what are diacritics?

Diacritics are extra markings on or around a letter or group of letters. Diacritics are used to indicate that the letter or letters take a different phonetic value than the unmarked letters.

In other words, all French accent marks are indeed also diacritics. So technically, today’s lesson will cover all of the French diacritic marks, not just the accents.

Finally, we’ll mention that the ligatures are neither accents nor diacritics. We may consider them to be characters, but they’re not even letters on their own: they’re two letters joined together as ligatures.

Do capital letters have accent marks in French?

If you spend much time in France, you may notice that anything written in all-caps seems to lack accents. Indeed, it’s generally acceptable to forgo the diacritics on capital letters.

The practice of ignoring accent marks on capital letters isn’t universal, however, so if you’re trying to write correctly then you should still include them just as you would with lowercase letters. In Québec, for example, accent marks in French are ubiquitous, with no latitude for omitting them on capital letters.

In short, we recommend always including the diacritics, no matter the font or the capitalization. You’ll see them ignored sometimes on capital letters, but you can still make sure to spell everything correctly with all the right accent marks in French!

Now let’s see each of the accent marks French uses, one by one.

French accent marks

As we’ve just seen, there are just three diacritics in French that are considered to be accent marks, so we’ll examine each one in detail here. We’ll move on to the other two French diacritics in the following section.

L’accent aigu: é

L’accent aigu in French is only found on the letter e. The English name for l’accent aigu is the acute accent. This is by far the most common of all the French accents.

The difference in pronunciation between é and e is very subtle, and often imperceptible. In French, the description of its pronunciation is that the é indicates more of a closed sound. For English speakers, this corresponds to a pronunciation approximately between the sound of the word “eh” and the “e” sound in the word “bet.”

The é can appear anywhere in a word. However, it may never appear before a double consonant, nor before a group of consonants.

In general, the é rarely appears before a syllable that includes an unaccented e. This rule led to modified spellings of such words in the language reform of 1990, so words like événement and crémerie may now also be spelled évènement and crèmerie.

It’s even possible to have two és next to each other in the same word, resulting in a double pronunciation of the letter. Examples are créée, agréé, réélu, or rééducation.

L’accent aigu is extremely prominent in French participles, since regular -er verbs form their participles by dropping the -er from the infinitive and adding an .

A few common words that include l’accent aigu are été, élite, quantité, moitié, électricité, and cérémonie.

L’accent grave: à, è, ù

This diacritic is known as the grave accent in English, or l’accent grave in French. It is particularly common on the letter e, especially in a syllable that precedes another syllable with a silent e.

The pronunciation difference between è vs e is more perceptible than between é vs e. We say that the è results in an open sound. The pronunciation is somewhere between the “e” in the English word “bet” and the “ai” in “air.”

A few common words that include l’accent grave are mère, père, parrallèle, espèce, derrière, and thème.

L’accent grave can also appear on a and u, though only in a few very specific French words. The à is found in the words à, çà, deçà, déjà, delà, holà, là, and voilà. The only French word that contains ù is the word . The à results in a much more open sound than a, whereas  sounds more closed than ou.

L’accent circonflexe: â, ê, î, ô, û

This accent can be found on the French vowels a, e, i, o, and u. Its English name is the circumflex accent, while in French it’s known as l’accent circonflexe. Its appearance in French words is fairly arbitrary; words that contain it are often misspelled.

The pronunciation of syllables that contain â, ê, and ô tends to be a lot more drawn out than with the same unaccented letters, though many people make very little distinction between them when speaking. There’s no perceptible difference in pronunciation between î vs i nor between û vs u.

The appearance of an accent circonflexe in a word is often due to its etymological origins, particularly where archaic spellings included an s after the vowel. This results in certain closely-related words having two different spellings in modern French, such as forêt vs forestier or côte vs accoster.

L’accent circonflexe is very present in a few verb tenses, particularly le passé simple and l’imparfait subjonctif.

Some common French words that contain l’accent circonflexe include châtaigne, pâte, crête, fenêtre, île, chaîne, hôpital, hôte, crû, and croûte.

Other French diacritics

So far we’ve seen the three diacritics that most people think of as French accent marks: l’accent aigu, l’accent grave, and l’accent circonflexe. In addition to those three, we have two other diacritics that aren’t considered accent marks in French: le tréma and la cedille. Let’s examine each of these now.

Le tréma: ä, ë, ï, ö, ü, ÿ

This French diacritic consists of two dots placed horizontally over vowels. It’s commonly known in English as an umlaut, which is borrowed from its German name of Ümlaut. Another English name for this diacritic is a diaeresis, which is related to its Spanish name of diéresis.

In French, le tréma is most common on e, i, and u. It exists over the letter y in certain proper nouns, and over the letters a and o in some foreign loanwords. In other words, it’s possible to see le tréma on all the vowels in French, including y.

When le tréma appears in the middle of a word on the letters e, i, u, and y, it signals a distinct pronunciation of both the letter in question and the preceding vowel. In other words, le tréma  causes vowel combinations that would otherwise be pronounced as diphthongs to be pronounced separately. Examples are Noël, Citroën, Raphaël, maïs, héroïne, capharnaüm, l’Haÿ-les-Roses.

Likewise, in words that end in ë, this final vowel is pronounced distinctly from the vowel preceding it. This is quite uncommon, but examples include canoë and Zoë.

This rule of pronunciation does not apply to the letter combination of -gue-. The language reform of 1990 modified such words whose spellings traditionally included a tréma over the final e, placing it instead over the u. This resulted in preferred spellings of aigüe, ambigüe, and contigüe, for example, rather than the older spellings of aiguë, ambiguë, and contiguë. In this case, the pronunciation of -güe requires a much tighter  sound rather than the open ge sound of -gue.

La cedille: ç

Our final French diacritic is la cedille, known in English as the cedilla. It appears only on the letter c, and looks like a small comma or inverted-c attached to the bottom of the letter. Ç can appear at the beginning or in the middle of a word, but never as the last letter.

The pronunciation of ç is always an s sound. We place the ç before the vowels a, o, and u, in spellings where a normal c would otherwise be pronounced with a k sound.

Some common French words that include the ç are ça, français, façon, garçon, aperçu, and déçu. You even keep the French ç in a few English words such as façade and salade niçoise.

Some closely-related French words need the ç to maintain the pronunciation between their different forms, such as remplacement vs remplaçant, balance vs balaçoire, or nous percevons vs je perçois, for example.

In many cases, la cedille appears in several conjugations of verbs whose infinitives just have c. This is the case, for example, with verbs like recevoir, percevoir, commencer, remplacer, or prononcer.

Les ligatures: æ, œ

The final characters that we have in French are the two ligatures. These are essentially two letters that are printed as one single letter. Such ligatures were more common in archaic forms of modern languages, but their use has gradually disappeared through the ages. Œ is nonetheless still relatively common in many everyday French words. Æ, on the other hand, is really just still found in a few obscure French words with strong Latin roots.

Although handwritten French may not always clearly represent the œ and æ as single letters, they should always appear in printed French. Indeed, words that contain these ligatures require them to be spelled correctly. The French autocorrect feature of word processing software, including the French keyboards on mobile phones, should automatically replace any instances of oe or ae in words that require the ligature with œ and æ.

The pronunciation of œ calls for a slightly drawn-out vowel sound, partway between an o and an e sound. For German speakers, it’s fairly close to the German ö sound.

Some common French words that contain the ligature œ include cœur, sœur, vœux, œuvre, œuf, œil, œnologie, and œstrogène.

The ligature æ is extremely obscure in French, and has essentially died out. It may still appear in some Latin words, but even those will probably be spelled with either the modern é since the pronunciation is the same, or written separately as ae.

Æ is arguably more common in English, where the letter is referred to as ash. Archaic spellings of certain words still sometimes appear in English, such as encyclopædia and mediæval, whereas their French counterparts have lost the ligature: encyclopédie and médiéval. Famously, Elon Musk and partner Grimes even included it in their child’s name: X Æ A-12.

Conclusion: French accent marks

Today we introduced all of the accent marks French has. We began by defining what we mean by accent marks in French, noting that while all of the French alphabet accents we introduced are considered diacritics, only three of them are recognized as accents in French. The last two are simply known as ligatures. Then we looked at them all in greater detail.

We learned the names of French accent marks in both languages: l’accent aigu, l’accent grave, and l’accent circonflexe are known respectively in English as the acute accent, the grave accent, and the circumflex accent. The other diacritics are le tréma and la cedille, known respectively in English as the umlaut or the diaeresis, and the cedilla. The combined letters æ and œ are known in both French and English as ligatures.

We saw that l’accent aigu is exclusively found on the letter e as é, l’accent grave is most common with e as è but also appears in a few words as à and ù, while l’accent circonflexe can appear over the five vowels as â, êî, ô, and û. We described the subtle pronunciation differences each of these French accent marks calls for, admitting that it’s often difficult to really perceive much difference between accented and unaccented versions of similar words.

We then described the pronunciations of the other two diacritics, which are a bit easier to master. Le tréma can be found on all the vowels including y, though it’s most common just as ë and ï. Its presence results in a distinct pronunciation of adjacent vowels, rather than combining them into a diphthong. The last French diacritic we saw is la cedille, only found on the letter c as ç, which signals an obligatory s sound.

Finally, we saw that œ is an important and relatively common ligature in French, indicating a long vowel pronunciation partway between o and e sounds. The ligature æ has essentially disappeared from contemporary French.

We placed a lot of emphasis on the pronunciation of our different accent marks in French, but we’ll conclude by really underlining their importance in spelling as well. The diacritics we’ve seen here are all integral parts of the French words in which they appear, so make sure you include them in order to practice proper spelling!