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Meanings and Uses of French Accent Marks

written by: yasmina • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 2/6/2014

French accent marks can be the bête noire for students of French, whether they are just beginning or at an advanced level. This article seeks to make sense out of the purpose of the accent marks and help students to know when to use them.

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    Five Marks

    Although they can be a pain in the backside to English speakers, accent marks in French are part of the spelling of French words, and are as important as any letter. In this article you will learn not only how each accent mark is used, but when it is used, how it can make a difference in the meaning of a word, how it can change a word's pronunciation, and how you may even be able to use an accent mark to figure out the meaning of a word. French uses the accent grave, accent aigu, accent circonflexe, the cedille, and the trema.

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    L'Accent Aigu

    é

    The accent aigu is the most common of the French accents. If you know that there is an accent in a word you are trying to spell, your luck may be with you if you use the accent aigu.

    The accent aigu can only be used on the letter "E.” It tells the speaker to pronounce the E as the sound "AY.”

    For example: épée = ay pay

    At the beginning of the word, It can also mean that there used to be an "S" at the beginning.

    étable = stable

    il étudie = he studies

    étrangler = to strangle

    At the end of a word, it is often is the equivalent of -ed, or the simple past tense, and many past participles ending in é can be used as adjectives.

    aimé = loved

    dansé = danced

    mangé = ate

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    L'Accent Grave

    è

    First and foremost, l'accent grave tells the speaker to pronounce the "E" as "eh,” and in the English words "get" and "jet.”

    élève = ay lev

    It is often used to distinguish two words that are spelled the same, but have different meaning with the inclusion of the accent mark when written above the letters "A" or "U.”

    à (Preposition - at, in, to) vs. a (Third person singular present form of avoir)

    là (there) vs. la (definite article, singular feminine noun)

    où (where) vs. ou (or)

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    La Cédille

    ç La cédille s the only accent to be used on a consonant, only the letter "C", and only underneath. It simply provides a pronunciation guide that the "C" should be pronounced as an "S".

    garçon = gar son

    comme ci*, comme ça* = kom see, kom sah

    * a cédille is never used under a "c" before the letters "e" or "I", because French rules of pronunciation dictate that the "c" automatically becomes soft in front of those two letters.

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    L'Accent Circonflexe

    ê

    L'accent circonflexe can be helpful in determining the meaning of a word. It often means that in a previous version of the word, there used to be an "S.” Often the word is not a direct translation, but is similar in meaning. As with the accent grave, it can be used to distinguish two words that are spelled the same, but have different meaning with the inclusion of the accent mark. For example, dû is the past participle of verb devoir, and du is the contraction of de and le. This accent is used on A, E, I, O and U.

    forêt = forest

    hôpital = hospital

    arrêt = arrest, stop

    embûche = ambush, pitfall

    dû (past participle of verb devoir) vs. du (contraction of de and le)

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    Le Tréma

    ï

    Le tréma is the least common accent mark in the French language. Still, it is important to know its function, as it affects the pronunciation of the word.

    Its function is to separate the sounds of 2 vowels placed side by side in a word.

    naïve = nah eve (innocent)

    maïs = mah ees (corn)

    Noël = no ell (Christmas)