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Those damn accent marks

This is how I get roped into these things. On Twitter, @palafo announces that The New York Times has openings for copy editors and invites candidates to send in their résumés. Then @paulwiggins upbraids him: “accent marks in the word resume show a tin ear. English is English.”

There is some back and forth, which you can look up yourself on Twitter, and finally @paulwiggins tweets, “when it comes to American usage I'll bow to whatever opinion @johnemcintyre has on the use of accents in resume.” So now someone’s trying to give me the power to bind and loose.*

Well, I don’t want it, but I can explain some things for the civilians who may be wondering why this is an issue.

Associated Press style does not use accent marks. Like much of AP style, that is not out of any reasoned-through principle. Their transmission system has simply been unable to produce them. This made things easy for copy editors, who did not have to know where to put accent marks in common words, and who were spared the burden of knowing where to put them in proper nouns—for instance, the orthographic nightmare of Czech.

But now, thanks to the version of Microsoft Word that we and many other newspapers use, it’s a simple matter: When resume comes up, just go to the top of the screen and click on Symbols, scroll through the charts of symbols until you locate the one with the properly accented lowercase e, click on that in two places, and resume editing. If the word occurs more than once in the text, you can always do search-and-replace.

Of course, you could switch to a setting that does use the accent marks, producing texts that put an accented e in cafe and decor and all manner of other words that have been anglicized since Fowler was a little boy. Then, of course, a copy editor has to go through and substitute unaccented letters to keep the publication from looking precious.

All this, along with the formatting for online and formatting for print, adds to the purely mechanical tasks that must be performed and which take away time that could be used for editing, for working to establish accuracy and clarity.**

As for resume, it is awkward that there is a completely different word with the same spelling, but the sense is almost always clear in context; I do think that adding the accent marks looks a little fussy. There are, however, less common words from French and Spanish that turn up and probably ought to have accent marks.

So here’s the ruling. Go to whatever dictionary is the basis for your house style. If it shows words adopted from foreign languages with accent marks, use them.

Unless you decide not to.


And now for something completely different: The word of the week is mephitic.


*Matthew 18:18, for you heathens who miss allusions because your parents allowed you to stay home from church.

**And don’t tell me how damn easy these functions are, thanks to the miracle of modern computerized text editing. They’re still additional mechanical tasks that add up cumulatively and distract people from more crucial concerns.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:19 PM | | Comments (38)


We can add the diaeresis over a double vowels (e.g., coöperate) to the list of precious-looking orthographical enhancements.

As a technical note, if one finds oneself using certain special characters often (such as ó or such) and if one is using Windows + a PC, it can be worthwhile to know how to insert these by using the number pad. With NumLock on, you hold down the Alt key and then type (on the number pad only) zero followed by the code for the character in question. For example, to get the umlauted ö, I typed Alt+0246. To get the accented ó, I typed Alt+0243, etc. A quick search of the web will produce lists of these characters.

You're right that the AP's avoidance of accent marks is based on teletype limitations. 7-bit ASCII doesn't have room for much typography.

But Microsoft Word has been able to handle accent marks for at least ten years. Other word processors have been managing it also.

WTF don't you just use the US - International keyboard setting? Not only can you use accents marks, you can also type stuff like ¿ € ¼ ½ ¾ ° µ and ×. All this without multikeystroking like that described in the bit by Mr. McIntyre.

I recently started using a "text expander," that is, a utility that automatically inserts frequently used text strings when you type a specific bit of shorthand. (For example, I use it to insert my somewhat lengthy email address on web forms.) This one comes with a set of words that it assumes people misspell frequently, and it will automatically "fix" them for you, and some of those "fixes" are to include those precious little accent marks in some words, like in résumé.

I used the scare quotes around "fix" because I'm not to pleased with some of its fixes. For example, it assumes I mean "rosé" when I type "rose." Yeah, I never refer to the flower; always to the wine.

This may be a matter of personal preference, but to me a non-English word minus its proper diacritical marks just looks half-dressed.

On a Mac, typing accent marks is pretty easy. For example, to get an acute accent, you type Option + E, and then the letter (e.g. Option + E, then a, produces á). There are similar commands for producing other diacritical marks. Here is one reference:

The fact that their transmission system won't cope with them sounds reasoned-through to me.

The dictionary is always a good fallback, but sometimes it can give you recommendations that seem inconsistent, like naive and naïveté. I suppose that's where the "Unless you decide not to" comes in.

"And don’t tell me how damn easy these functions are, thanks to the miracle of modern computerized text editing. They’re still additional mechanical tasks that add up cumulatively and distract people from more crucial concerns."

Then again, so is verifying spelling with a dictionary (and I don't mean the built-in "dictionaries" in Word et al.). The central question is how much potential accuracy we are willing to let deteriorate for the sake of a small amount of time saved - if speed is of the essence, then accent-free writing is fine, but otherwise it would be best to take the extra step.

Well, if you want to easily insert accents and umlauts, just switch your keyboard to French Canadian Multilingual Standard.

So of course when I read "and resume editing," I read it as if "resume" were the noun, not the verb, because I teach technical writing and sometimes find myself engaged in resume (the noun) editing.

You can put accents on a lot of vowels by typing Ctrl + ' (hold down Ctrl and type ') before you type the vowel.

Which is still extra keystrokes and too much effort in cases where the meaning is clear without them, in my camp, at least.

You can also install a different (software) keyboard that lets you type accented characters fairly easily. For example, on my keyboard, AltGr+: followed by o gives me ö, and AltGr+` followed by e gives me è. Many other characters are available directly with AltGr, such as AltGr+a for æ, AltGr+2 for ² (superscript 2) and AltGr+c for ç.

(AltGr is the right-side Alt key; whether it is labeled "AltGr" or just "Alt" doesn't matter. If anyone wants this keyboard, which is for Windows, contact me at cowan at ccil dot org and I'll tell you where to get it from.)

I will zero in with unerring accuracy on the irrelevant bit.

Many of us had parents who believed that the Sunday morning churchgoers were the heathens. pfft.

Apologies for the backlog of comments. I spent much of the day helping my daughter move into her new apartment. While I deposited many Dad credits in the merit bank, I neglected approving your comments.

And then, you may try to automate the process via, a cool little programme providing diacritics and special characters for 100+ languages. Simply choose your foreign language text selection and click "accentuate French" or "... Czech" or whatever (if your language is in the list, that is).

Prof. McIntyre, no apology needed!

Using "résumé" as evidence that someone has a tin ear seems like overkill. Maybe Paul Wiggins is still smarting from the time someone thought his mom was wearing tin clothing. It was a silver lame dress.

You can easily find the list of international character/accent keyboard shortcuts on the Web. However, we found that not all fonts have all the characters. We use the euro symbol frequently, but the version of Times we use for text doesn't have that built in (too old, apparently). We have to shift to Geneva to get the euro symbol.

One apologises for being grumpy.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is asking its readers how important diacriticals are to them:

My guess: There, as here, the people who care a lot about them are most likely to reply. First Post-Dispatch comment was snarky. No surprise.

R.L.G.'s post and the comments at Johnson are also instructive.

"So of course when I read "and resume editing," I read it as if "resume" were the noun"

But not for long, I'll bet, since it was in what was clearly a verb slot in the larger sentence (scroll through the charts of symbols until you locate the one with the properly accented lowercase e, click on that in two places, and resume editing.) That's not really a spot where it's ambiguous.

English has a blue million words that might be nouns or verbs - and a lot where the polysemy is so wide that even narrowing it to a verb (or noun) doesn't help unless you look at context. One example: bank. edge of water/place where you keep your money/kind of pool shot/putting your money somewhere? "Round" is five different parts of speech.

Diacritics are very nice, and I hate it when they're left off names, but let's not pretend we *have* to have them to tell nouns from verbs.

Go get 'em, Ridger.

Leave the diacritical mark off lamé and see how many readers are left scratching their heads. The editor's job is to clarify, not to settle for confounding heteronyms.

We've been leaving off the accent for lame for years without apparently generating any head-scratching. Perhaps, since it is typically preceded by gold, our readers have an adequate context.

I find it interesting that the day after you posted this, the same subject came up points west.

A quick search shows the Sun feels strongly both ways, with a reference to "gold lamé" appearing one week ago in the Calendar section. That's progress.

You may have fallen into a variant of the intentional fallacy. I never assume that what newspapers do is what they mean to do.

I hope the editor who allowed the "lamé" past her desk will not be penalized. Removing the diacritical mark would have been a purely mechanical task, possibly distracting her from more crucial concerns.

Jonathon: Is there an inconsistency in "naive and naïveté"?  The dictionary could argue (as I would) that there are the anglicised words naive and naiveness and naivety, but if you want to use the still-French version naïveté, you'll need to get the diacritics right.

Picky, this is exactly what I find interesting about this discussion: how do we know when a word becomes English rather than "still-French" or still-anything-else? Why is naïveté not English, while the other forms you list are?

Resume, for instance - since English doesn't use diacriticals, I tend to think that once a word has passed into English it loses its squiggles, wherever they (or it) originated. And since resume seems to me a perfectly English word - borrowed from French, sure, but what word in English isn't borrowed from somewhere? - I would leave its es naked. But what makes me so certain that resume is English, and Picky so certain that naivete is not?

Anyone care to propose a distinction?

First, I don't see why there is or should be any firm rule: acceptance of a word into the language will take time, and it will be a matter of personal judgement when it has crossed the line.  My view is that naïveté is still the other side of the line, and has probably been kept there by the invention of the fully englished form "naivety".  (Of course I understand a style book will want to take a stand on the matter one way or the other.)

And I think there are actually three categories: (1) fully accepted and no diacritics; (2) definitely English, but retaining any diacritics useful for distinction of meaning or - more often - indicating retained foreign pronunciation (I would judge résumé comes here, and so does pâté); and still-foreign (e.g. naïveté).  But it's a question of taste.


John, as always I'd love to be persnickety and point out the slight difference in certain copy editing practices north of the 49th parallel.

In English Canada most anglicized words tend to have the accents dropped by now, but because there are so many national figures with French names, a certain amount of flexibility is warranted. When the prime minister's name has an accent, other ones seem more acceptable as well. It does vary a great deal by paper and community, however.

At The Globe and Mail, for example accents are always used on French names and some French words, but not anything else (no cyrillic characters, for example).

I once worked in a small northern Ontario newspaper in an extremely bilingual community (trilingual if you count Cree), where we tended to use accented letters more frequently. Names in this sort of town are always fun, since "Cote" may have one, two or no accented letters, depending on its owner's preference. As always, I suppose, the context of a given community of readers tends to dictate these types of rules.

I do, however agree that it's amusing to see how certain words spelled either with or without accents make some of us crazy. Personally, I realize melee looks pretentious with the circumflex and acute accents, but I also think it looks sad and lonely without them. I fear I'm fighting a losing battle on that one, though.

I believe that Anonymous and Picky, above, are saying the same things. There are foreign words fully naturalized in English that no longer carry their original diacriticals. There are foreign words not naturalized that keep their diacriticals. And there are words at an intermediate stage which may or may not carry diacriticals.

The matter of judgment in that intermediate category has to do with what dictionary one follows, what preferences one's publication has, what levels of education and expectation one's readers may have, and one's own taste and sense of where the language is. There is no rule to fit all instances. That's why we call it judgment.

What's really irritating is the random decision of the _Guardian_ that it was going to do diacritics in foreign proper names *in certain languages only*. Spanish but not Portuguese? Why????

If adding the diacritic is a fussy, distracting exercise, then removing it must be viewed in the same light, particularly if the slipshod "no-confusion-would-result" argument is in force.

Either use or lose the diacritics, as you wish, depending on whatever "house style" you are following, but to make the blanket statement that "English doesn't use diacriticals" is just wrong. English books and English speakers have been writing words like "café" and "façade" for centuries. These are English words, even with the diacriticals. With common nouns, it probably doesn't matter all that much which version you choose, but with personal names, I think it is a sign of respect to use the proper diacritical marks if you can. There is a big difference, for example, between the way fairly knowledgeable readers would pronounce the surname "Pena" and the way they would pronounce "Peña". Similarly, there is a world of difference between "Zizek" and "Žižek". When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s and developing an interest in classical music, I remember almost always seen the name "Dvořák" spelled correctly in books and on record covers, if not in newspapers.

I find the discussion of whether English needs diacritics amusing. My home language uses a few diacritics, and our language commission has kept them in place.

Some are not needed to indicate pronunciation, or ease confusion when a similar word exists.

But some are necessary and I believe most adults include them in writing and (usually) typing ê ë è é ô ö Ü û.

However almost all are being ignored by the new generation of teenagers and magazines.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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