French Accent Marks – Aigu, Grave and More

Photo of author

Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

French accent marks are stylish and distinctive pieces of punctuation, and they serve a functional purpose. For example, the accent aigu tells you to pronounce the last letter of the word, while the accent grave signals that you shouldn’t.

In this quick guide, I’ll explain the meaning and usage of these fetching accents, distinguishing the accent aigu from the more grounded accent grave. I’ll also give a few examples to help you understand when and how to use them, elevating your French from passable to parfait. Whether you’re planning a trip to Paris or are brushing up on your French, this quick guide will get you where you need to be.

French Accent Marks – Aigu Grave More

French Accents List: The Five French Accent Marks

  • ç – la cédille (the cedilla)
  • é – l’accent aigu (the acute accent)
  • â/ê/î/ô/û – l’accent circonflexe (the circumflex)
  • à/è/ì/ò/ù – l’accent grave (the grave accent)
  • ë/ï/ü – le tréma (the trema)

Accent Grave vs. Accent Aigu

The grave accent (`) points to the left and upward, opposite the aigu accent. It makes an ehh sound as in “get” or “bet.” The aigu accent (‘) points to the right and upward, only appearing on top of the letter e. 

What Is the Difference Between e and è?

The French pronunciation of the letter e can be confusing. The four main ways to pronounce it are:

  • /e/ or “closed e” as in hey.
  • /ɛ/ or “open e” as in bet.
  • /ə/ or “schwa” as in Tina.
  • Silent e. 

But there are also diacritical marks that distinguish instances where the pronunciation is not part of the standard pronunciations for the letter “e”.

È denotes the pronunciation /ɛ/ like “blessed” or “bet.” This pronunciation also means that the “e” is not silent or does not have an “uh” sound. It also comes in the form of verb conjugation.  

How to Use French Accent Marks

The French alphabet also uses twenty-six letters. But the language requires diacritical marks to change the sound of the letter. You’ll see these used often with French greetings and salutations, too.

French people also believe that a missing accent is an error in spelling because these marks distinguish a word from its homonyms.

For example, the word parlé is different from parle. The former is a past participle form, and the latter is a second-person imperative form of parler. It’s also the third-person singular active indicative form. 

Some also believe that you should not put accent marks on capital letters because they’re unnecessary. But it’s all up to you.

How to Type French Accents

French mobile devices and computers use a different keyboard layout, which is the AZERTY. It has many differences from the QWERTY keyboard, like the special characters for accent marks. But you can still use accent marks on your default keyboard. 

How Do You Type French Accents on a PC?

There are several keyboard shortcuts for French Accents, depending on your computer type.  Some people download a French keyboard and enable the device on their keyboard setting. 

But it’s easier to use the international keyboard if you’re switching between French and English. On Windows, press the Start button, then Settings. Head to Time & Language, select Region & Language, and press English. Add the United States keyboard, and you’re done.

Here are the keyboard combinations for each French accent:

  • Cédilla shortcut: Alt + C
  • L’accent Aigu Shortcut: ‘(single quote) + e
  • L’accent Circonflexe Shortcut: Shift + 6 + vowel
  • L’accent Grave Shortcut: Shift +  ` (to the left of 1) + vowel
  • Le Trema Shortcut: Shift + ‘ (single quote) + vowel

You can also type French accents on your PC is by using four-digit French accent codes. Press the “alt” key, then add the character code.

CharacterCode LowercaseCode Uppercase
çAlt + 0199Alt + 0231
éAlt + 0233Alt + 0201
âAlt + 0226Alt + 0194
êAlt + 0234Alt + 0202
îAlt + 0238Alt + 0206
ôAlt + 0244Alt + 0212
ûAlt + 0251Alt + 0219
àAlt + 0224Alt + 0192
èAlt + 0232Alt + 0200
ìAlt + 0236Alt + 0204
òAlt + 0242Alt + 0210
ùAlt + 0249Alt + 0217
ëAlt + 0235Alt + 0203
ïAlt + 0239Alt + 0207
üAlt + 0252Alt + 0220

You can also find a list of accents in the symbols section. However, this alternative method isn’t convenient for frequent use. 

How Do You Type French Accents on a Mac?

Here’s how to type different kinds of accent marks on your Mac:

  • Cédilla shortcut: Option + C
  • L’accent Aigu Shortcut: Command + E + vowel
  • L’accent Circonflexe Shortcut: Option + I then vowel
  • L’accent Grave Shortcut: Option + ` (next to Shift) + vowel.
  • Le Trema Shortcut: Option + U + vowel.

You can also type special characters by holding down the letter key. For example, if you hold the regular letter key “e” for a few seconds, è, é, ê, ë, ē, ė, and ę will appear. But it still depends on your Mac device’s settings. 

How to Type French Accent Marks on Mobile

French Accent Marks – Aigu Grave More 1

Perhaps the mobile keyboard is the easiest tool for typing French accent marks. You don’t need to go to your keyboard menu to change the settings anymore. Just press and hold the letter you want to type, and the characters will show up. 

The Five French Accent Marks

French uses several accent marks to guide pronunciation. These are the most common ones.

1. The Cedilla (La cédille) in French

In French, the cedilla, or the consonant accent, is a little tail under the letter c: ç. It’s used to give the c an s sound instead of a hard k sound—for example:

  • garçon (gahr-sohn, meaning boy)
  • français (frahn-say, meaning the French language

Garçon is the most common word with a cedilla. And while français is another example, France does not need a cedilla. 

That’s because the letter c comes before e. English cognates like façade are also an example of a cedilla. You’ll find it in Portuguese and other languages too. 

La cédille’s role is to produce the soft s before the vowels e, i, u, o, and a. It can also be used before the consonant y. It also makes the hard k sound in front of u, o, and a. 

The French language employs the cedilla in verb tenses to make the pronunciation correct. Verbs with c as their last syllables make the s sound in infinitive forms. For instance, infinitives ending in -cer use the accent mark in the first-person plural (nous) forms–for example:

  • nous prononçons (we pronounce)
  • nous menaçons (we threaten)

They will continue to make this sound in their conjugations and participles. And their original spelling will change accordingly. Reçu is the past participle form of recevoir. Both have the same c sound because of the cedilla.

2. The Acute Accent (L’accent Aigu) in French

The aigu accent symbolpoints to the right and upward like an apostrophe or quotation marks. Only appearing above the letter e, it changes the letter’s pronunciation to ay—for example,

  • médecin (may-deh-sehn, meaning doctor),
  • étouffer, (ay-too-fay, meaning to stifle),
  • marché (mar-shay, meaning market).

The aigua accent gives the same sound as the English word hay. The familiar accent mark only appears above the letter e to produce effects on pronunciation. Without an accent, you can pronounce e in many ways. But é is always pronounced with the same sound.

There’s a problem with following the sound in the word hay. French language speakers will automatically know your native language is English. It’s a common issue among private students taking French language courses.

Say the words hay, way, and say slowly. As you voice out the last parts of the word, your tongue moves because of double vowels.  

É is the first consecutive vowel sound producing the ay diphthong. That means it’s not the ay sound per se, but the eh sound.  

One common English word that uses the aigu is cafe. But English speakers usually don’t use the accent mark in modern spelling anymore. 

3. The Grave Accent (L’accent grave) in French

The grave accent points to the left and upward or points down from the left. It provides accents for vowels, but it only alters pronunciation when over the letter e. 

While, depending on the context, unaccented e‘s may be pronounced in several different ways. E‘s with grave accents are always pronounced ehh, like the e in the English word set. Examples:

  • très (treh, meaning very)
  • deuxième (doo-zee-ehm, meaning second, as in second place).

The grave accent may appear at the end of an adjective to mark the feminine. For instance, while complet is the masculine, complète is the feminine form. 

L’accent grave also appears on top of the French vowels a and u. Its primary use is to distinguish between two words with different meanings but exact spelling, such as ou and où. 

Use it in adverbs and other words ending in es. Remember that the plural indefinite article des should not include a l’accent grave, along with demonstrative and possessive adjectives. 

Dès and des are used with a to differentiate between the third-person active indicative form of avoir and à. You can also use it to distinguish between the adverb of place and the feminine article la.

Here’s a tip to remember what the grave accent looks like. People dig graves in the ground, so the accented character should be pointing down. 

4. The Circumflex (Le circonflexe) in French

The circonflexe looks like a little pointed hat over vowels. It doesn’t change pronunciation, but it must be included in written French.

  • forêt (for-ay, meaning forest)
  • hôtel (owe-tel, meaning hotel)

The circumflex accent has the same pronunciation as the grave accent when used with the letter e. Some examples include tête, être, and fenêtre. So if it doesn’t change pronunciation, what is its purpose?

First, there are cases where the beloved circonflexe shows the pronunciation of the vowel it’s over. Â becomes ah, and ê turns into eh

Another reason behind circumflex’s importance is in the word forêt or forest. Both French and English words have the same root. But the French word eventually had a silent s, which led to spelling changes. The circumflex is like a “tribute” to the missing letter in question, s.

It’s like the use of contractions in the English letter. We type don’t instead of do not to remove the extra letters.

You can also use this accent mark for words that sound the same, like sur and sûr. Sur is a preposition meaning on. It can also be an adjective that refers to sour. Sûr is defined as certain. Le circonflexe is also present in inflected form like sûre. 

5. The Trema (Le tréma) in French

The tréma looks like two dots above a letter. It’s usually placed above the second of two consecutive vowels when both vowels are to be pronounced separately.

  • Jamaïque (jam-eh-eek, meaning Jamaica)
  • coïncidence (ko-ehn-see-dahns, meaning coincidence)

The trema accent looks like the umlaut in Germanic languages, but they do not represent the same thing. The accent mark simply teaches you to pronounce the consecutive vowel sounds, like in noël.

The feminine form of adjectives ending in gu is gue. The trema accent reminds you to pronounce the last u sound.

More Examples

Accent Cedilla Examples

  • Bicyclette
  • Commencer, commncé
  • Concevoir
  • Effacer
  • Fiancé
  • Besacançon
  • Façon
  • Hameçon 
  • Glaçon 
  • Merci 
  • Provençal

Accent Acute Examples

  • attaché
  • Allé 
  • Canapé
  • cliché
  • Entrée
  • Fiancé
  • Idé 
  • Kafé 
  • Komité
  • Passé 
  • Toupée 
  • Touché 

Accent Grave Examples

  • Città 
  • Première
  • Scène 
  • Gérer  
  • Lever 
  • Mosè  
  • Répéter
  • Donner
  • Marcher 
  • Virtù   

Accent Circumflex Examples

  • Ancêtre
  • Août
  • Dégoûtant
  • forêt
  • Gâteau
  • Rôtir
  • L’hôpital 
  • Vêtement
  • l’hôte
  • prêtre 

Accent Trema Examples

  • Ambiguïté
  • Capharnaüm
  • Caraïbes
  • Coïncidence 
  • Jamaïque
  • Michaël
  • Naïve
  • Noël
  • mosaïque

The Spelling Reform 

Everyone was surprised when the French education minister announced a change in French language rules. They only applied the 1990 language reform by the Académie française in the fall of 2016.

The reform has the goal of simplifying some aspects of the French language. Ognon became oignon, and nénuphar became nénufar. Some unnecessary dashes were removed, while some were added. 

There are also changes regarding the French accent marks. Événement (event) is now spelled as évènement since that is the proper pronunciation. Another accent rule is the suppressing of the circumflex accent on the i and u.  

Many were against this reform, especially textbook publishers. That’s why nothing might change. And these spelling changes will never be compulsory anyway.

The Bottomline on French Accent Marks

The French use the same alphabet as English, but one difference is the use of French accent marks. These symbols are an essential component in spelling which French language learners should know. 

Note that accent marks are a matter of spelling since they don’t always influence pronunciation. If your goal is to be an excellent French speaker, there’s no need to master them yet. And for more helpful info like this, check out our breakdown of French numbers.