French accent marks are an integral part of French writing and correct spelling. Incorrect usage of accent marks, or the absence of them, can cause embarrassing mistakes and frustrating miscommunications.
French students who want to become competent in reading the language must also understand how to use French accent marks. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know, including French accent codes to use while typing!
The 5 French Accent Marks
So, what are the five accent marks in French and when do you use them? Four of the accents are only used on vowels, and one of them is only used on the letter C.
These symbols usually indicate something about the letter’s pronunciation or about the history of the word, which we’ll discuss later in this guide.
Check out the video below to get started, then we’ll move on to the specific rules about how to use French accent marks.
Accent Aïgue (é)
You will only ever see the accent aigu on the letter E. The letter E can have many different pronunciations in French, so this accent mark’s placement tells the reader how to pronounce it.
This particular sound is similar to the E sound in the English word “hey” or “say,” as compared to the E in “bed,” or the silent E at the end of a word. The accent aigu can be found in words such as un été (a summer) and une école (a school).
Accent Grave (à, è, ù)
This accent mark can help indicate pronunciation, like in the words une pièce (a play) or une espèce (a species). In this case, you’ll pronounce the E more like the E in “bed,” rather than the E in “hey” or “say.”
The accent grave can also help to distinguish between two similarly pronounced (and spelled) words that have different meanings. This is the accent’s most common use on the letters A and U. Some examples include the words ou (or) and où (where), or the words a (has) and à (to).
Accent Circonflèxe (â, ê, î, ô, û)
This accent is unique because of its historical significance. You’ll notice it on vowels that used to be followed by the letter S in French.
When these S’s became silent over the course of several hundred years, French scholars decided to eliminate them from the words’ spellings. Instead of including a silent S on these words, they began placing the circonflèxe accent mark over the preceding vowel.
Often, the dropped S will show up in English versions of the word that contain a similar Latin root. For example, la forêt translates to “forest,” also of Latin origin.
The circonflexe can also help determine a pronunciation difference for A, E, and O. With “â,” the sound becomes slightly more rounded, as in pates (noodles). The “ê” is pronounced like the short “e” as in “set” in English, and as in the French word la tête (head). The “ô” is pronounced as a closed sound, as in allô (hello).
In some places, the circonflexe can distinguish between homophones, such as jeune (young) and le jeûne (fasting), or un mur (a wall) and mûr (ripe). Occasionally, the accent is seen in other places too, such as the relatively new French word – émoticône (emoticon).
Trëma (ë, ï, ü)
In French, the trëma indicates that you should pronounce two side-by-side vowels separately. For example, in French you pronounce the word Noël (Christmas) like “nowell” and not “nole.” Likewise, you’d pronounce maïs (corn) like “mayees” and not “may.”
This is a departure from the typical French pronunciation rule, where two adjacent vowels typically combine to form one sound.
Of all the French accent marks, you will only ever see this one on the letter C. The çédille transforms the C sound from hard to soft. Examples include – français (French), un garçon (a boy), and deçu (disappointed).
Note: The French C can also become soft when preceding the letters E, I, or Y, such as in la glace (ice cream). So the çédille is used primarily for those soft C’s that are followed by a letter other than E, I, or Y.
French Accent Codes
Once you’ve become familiar with accent marks, chances are you’ll need French accent codes to type them out on your computer. Here are some helpful shortcuts for those who don’t have access to a French keyboard.
French Accent Codes for PC Users
If you’re using Microsoft Word on a PC, use the French accent codes below. (Note: Don’t try to press down all the keys at once; instead, press the keys down one at a time and hold until all are pressed).
- Accent aïgue (é): Press CTRL ‘ (apostrophe), followed by the letter
- Accent grave (à, è, ù): Press CTRL ` (the key to the left of “1”), followed by the letter
- Accent circonflèxe (â, ê, î, ô, û): Press CTRL Shift 6 followed by the letter
- Trëma (ë, ï, ü): Press CTRL Shift ; followed by the letter
- Cédille (ç): Press CTRL – followed by the letter
If you have trouble using any of the codes above, try these alt codes for PC users:
- Alt – 0233 (é)
- Alt – 0224 (à)
- Alt – 0232 (è)
- Alt – 0249 (ù)
- Alt – 0226 (â)
- Alt – 0234 (ê)
- Alt – 0238 (î)
- Alt – 0244 (ô)
- Alt – 0251 (û)
- Alt – 0235 (ë)
- Alt – 0239 (ï)
- Alt – 0252 (ü)
- Alt – 0231 (ç)
French Accent Codes for Mac Users
Don’t fret! There are accent codes for Mac users as well. Use the following key next time you need to type an accented French letter.
- Accent aïgue (é): Press Option e
- Accent grave (à, è, ù): Press Option ` followed by the letter
- Accent circonflèxe (â, ê, î, ô, û): Press Option i followed by the letter
- Trëma (ë, ï, ü): Press Option u followed by the letter
- Cédille (ç): Press Option c. (You do not need to press C an additional time afterward).
As you master the five French accent marks, be sure you have help along the way. Experienced French teachers will know how to explain the intricacies of the language, and catch the common mistakes that many students make.
Nothing can replace hard work and dedication to your studies, but consistent feedback from a reliable source is essential to really improve! If you can’t afford private lessons, try one of our free online French classes led by live instructors today.
Carol Beth L. teaches French lessons in Sacramento, CA. She has her Masters in French language education from the Sorbonne University in Paris and has been teaching since 2009. Learn more about Carol Beth here!