Accent Marks | Using Diacriticals in Desktop Publishing

Those Squiggly Little Marks

Words with accent marks
Examples of words with accent marks. | Type & Fonts FAQ | Glossary of Type & Fonts Terms.
An accent mark is a mark or addition to some characters to denote a specific pronounciation.
Accent marks or diacriticals are rare in English but are a common occurrence in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and other languages. Some of the more commonly seen accent marks include acute, cedilla, circumflex, grave, tilde, and umlaut or diaeresis *. Many "Americanized" foreign words may be found written with or without their accent marks, such as cafe, naive, or facade (café, naïve, façade).

* See page 2 for clarification on umlaut vs. diaeresis for differences that are not reflected in the accompanying chart and graphics.

Examples of Diacriticals

é Acute
ç Cedilla
â Circumflex
è Grave
ñ Tilde
ü Umlaut/Diaeresis

Keystrokes for Mac and PC
When using a standard English keyboard and fonts it is necessary to use special characters or keystroke combinations in order to apply accent marks. The basic keystroke combinations are:

  • Mac Option plus a key or key combination — Opt+e, a for á
  • Windows ALT plus a numeric code — ALT+0225 for á
  • HTML Ampersand plus character code followed by a semi-colon — á for á

I've put together a simple table of diacriticals showing the Mac, Windows, and HTML codes for the six common accent marks encountered in English text. This table also appears at the end of this page.

Designing with Diacriticals
These rules apply especially to US designers and others designing in English for a predominantly English-speaking audience.

  • Italicize foreign words or phrases. Include the accent mark when your text includes foreign words, proper names, or common English words that are normally accented.
  • Be consistent. If you start out using accents, continue to do so throughout the document.
  • Pay attention to the available special characters in the digital typefaces you choose. Not all fonts contain these characters.
  • You may want to use a larger typesize for body text or experiment with different faces to find a font where the accent marks don't appear to merge into the accented letters or show up as little "smudges."

    More About Accent Marks and Languages

    French Language
    "It is essential to put accents in their proper places - an incorrect or missing accent is a spelling mistake just as an incorrect or missing letter would be. The only exception to this is capital letters, which are often left unaccented." — Learn how to pronounce accented characters and all about reading, writing, and speaking French.

    Spanish Language
    "Typing accented characters using either a Microsoft Windows-based or Macintosh computer isn't all that difficult. But it isn't intuitive." — Includes step-by-step instructions on how to add accented characters under Windows or on a Mac as well as lessons in learning Spanish.

    German Language
    This special character chart for German describes which accented characters are most common in that language and how to type them. Also see German Language Dictionaries to find a dictionary online to translate between English and German plus other resources for reading, writing, and speaking German including "Wir chatten... über Deutsch und auf deutsch!" (German Chat).

    Italian Language
    Use this chart to find the accented characters most often used in Italian and how to type them.

    CharacterMacWindowsHTMLCharacterMacWindowsHTML Acute [resumé] Umlaut [naïve]Á
    á
    É
    é
    Í
    í
    Ó
    ó
    Ú
    ú
    Ý
    ýOpt + e, A
    Opt + e, a
    Opt + e, E
    Opt + e, e
    Opt + e, I
    Opt + e, i
    Opt + e, O
    Opt + e, o
    Opt + e, U
    Opt + e, u
    Opt + e, Y
    Opt + e, yALT + 0193
    ALT + 0225
    ALT + 0201
    ALT + 0233
    ALT + 0205
    ALT + 0237
    ALT + 0211
    ALT + 0243
    ALT + 0218
    ALT + 0250
    ALT + 0221
    ALT + 0253Á
    á
    É
    é
    Í
    í
    Ó
    ó
    Ú
    ú
    Ý
    ýÄ
    ä
    Ë
    ë
    Ï
    ï
    Ö
    ö
    Ü
    ü
    Ÿ
    ÿOpt + u, A
    Opt + u, a
    Opt + u, E
    Opt + u, e
    Opt + u, I
    Opt + u, i
    Opt + u, O
    Opt + u, o
    Opt + u, U
    Opt + u, u
    Opt + u, Y
    Opt + u, yALT + 0196
    ALT + 0228
    ALT + 0203
    ALT + 0235
    ALT + 0207
    ALT + 0239
    ALT + 0214
    ALT + 0246
    ALT + 0220
    ALT + 0252
    ALT + 0159
    ALT + 0255Ä
    ä
    Ë
    ë
    Ï
    ï
    Ö
    ö
    Ü
    ü
    Ÿ
    ÿ Grave [voilà] Circumflex [château]À
    à
    È
    è
    Ì
    ì
    Ò
    ò
    Ù
    ùOpt + `, A
    Opt + `, a
    Opt + `, E
    Opt + `, e
    Opt + `, I
    Opt + `, i
    Opt + `, O
    Opt + `, o
    Opt + `, U
    Opt + `, uALT + 0192
    ALT + 0224
    ALT + 0200
    ALT + 0232
    ALT + 0204
    ALT + 0236
    ALT + 0210
    ALT + 0242
    ALT + 0217
    ALT + 0249À
    à
    È
    è
    Ì
    ì
    Ò
    ò
    Ù
    ùÂ
    â
    Ê
    ê
    Î
    î
    Ô
    ô
    Û
    ûOpt + i, A
    Opt + i, a
    Opt + i, E
    Opt + i, e
    Opt + i, I
    Opt + i, i
    Opt + i, O
    Opt + i, o
    Opt + i, U
    Opt + i, uALT + 0194
    ALT + 0226
    ALT + 0202
    ALT + 0234
    ALT + 0206
    ALT + 0238
    ALT + 0212
    ALT + 0244
    ALT + 0219
    ALT + 0251Â
    â
    Ê
    ê
    Î
    î
    Ô
    ô
    Û
    û Tilde [mañana] Cedilla [façade]Ã
    ã
    Ñ
    ñ
    Õ
    õOpt + n, A
    Opt + n, a
    Opt + n, N
    Opt + n, n
    Opt + n, O
    Opt + n, oALT + 0195
    ALT + 0227
    ALT + 0209
    ALT + 0241
    ALT + 0213
    ALT + 0245Ã
    ã
    Ñ
    ñ
    Õ
    õÇ
    çOpt + Shft, C
    Opt + cALT + 0199
    ALT + 0231Ç
    ç

    Although they look the same — a character topped by double dots such as ï or ö — the umlaut and diaeresis actually represent two different types of characters.

    • An umlaut denotes a specific pronounciation. Common in German and Hungarian, u and ü for example, are two different characters and their use in a word can substantially change the meaning of the word if the ü were changed to u.
    • The diaeresis is used over the second instance of a pair of vowels in some words. It denotes either a difference in emphasis or pronounciation (such as for double vowels in words like preëmptive, coöperation), or indicates that the second vowel, which might normally be silent, is instead pronounced (compare the ai in pain and naïve).

      In English, it's more common to see the second usage of the diaeresis (naïve) than the first although some publications, such as The New Yorker still retain use the former type of diaeresis as a matter of style. Although the terms umlaut and diaeresis are often used interchangeably, they actually represent two different types of characters that happen to look alike.

      When typesetting text, it's important to determine which type of usage the organization desires. For that reason, a little knowledge of the proper usage of umlauts and diaeresis can be important in desktop publishing.

      For more on the history of the diaeresis (it developed from the use of double vertical lines in Latin verse) and its use in various languages, see diaeresis@everything2.com.