How, When, and Why to Use Accents on French Capitals

Use them on proper nouns and homographs. Otherwise, it's up to you

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You may have heard that capital letters are not supposed to be accented. This may be good advice, but, really, whether to use accents on French capital letters is entirely up to you. Most of the time they are not essential, and so most French speakers do not add them. In publishing, they have not been added either ever since Vogue magazine decided about 20 years ago that they were too small to be read in print and detracted from clarity and good design; much of the publishing world agreed and followed suit.

Always Use Accented Capitals in Two Cases; Otherwise, It's Up to You

That said, there are actually two instances when you should always use accents on capital letters:

1. When accents avoid embarrassing misunderstandings or mistakes.

Look at what happens when an advertisement for biscuits salés (salted crackers) is written in all caps: BISCUITS SALES, a LOL-worthy mistake that means "dirty crackers." Yum! It's so much clearer to write BISCUITS SALÉS, n'est-ce pas?

There are plenty of examples of French homographs like the case above, words that are spelled alike (or almost alike) but mean different things, where failing to add an accent or accents could lead to embarrassing results. Consider haler ("to haul in") versus hâler ("to tan"); arriéré ("backward") versus arrière ("backlog"); and interne ("internal") versus interné ("an inmate in a mental hospital"), to name a few.

2. In proper nouns, such as the name of a company or a person.

It's important to show respect to organizations and people by spelling their names correctly, as well as to make sure that the person who reads the name knows how it should be spelled. If you don't write the accent when the name is in all caps, your reader may not realize that there is an accent when that individual sits down later to write a letter to the person or organization in question.

What the Académie Française Says

Some people argue that it just makes more sense to always use accents on capital letters in French. And the august Académie française agrees:

On ne peut que déplorer que l'usage des accents sur les majuscules soit flottant. On observe dans les textes manuscrits une tendance certaine à l'omission des accents. En typographie, parfois, certains suppriment tous les accents sur les capitales sous prétexte de modernisme, en fait pour réduire les frais de composition.

Il convient cependant d'observer qu'en français, l'accent a pleine valeur orthographique. Son absence ralentit la lecture, fait hésiter sur la prononciation, et peut même induire en erreur. Il en va de même pour le tréma et la cédille.

On veille donc, en bonne typographie, à utiliser systématiquement les capitales accentuées, y compris la préposition À, comme le font bien sûr tous les dictionnaires, à commencer par le Dictionnaire de l'Académie française, ou les grammaires, comme Le Bon Usage de Grevisse, mais aussi l'Imprimerie nationale, la Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, etc. Quant aux textes manuscrits ou dactylographiés, il est évident que leurs auteurs, dans un souci de clarté et de correction, auraient tout intérêt à suivre également cette règle.