diacritic mark (accent mark)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

diacritic marks
Don't be fooled by this graphic: when letters are capitalized, diacritics generally aren't used. In addition, diacritics (or accent marks) are usually omitted in text messages and other forms of online writing. (mathisworks/Getty Images)

Definition

In phonetics, a diacritic mark is a symbol added to a letter that alters its sense, function, or pronunciation. Adjective: diacritical. Also called a diacritical mark and an accent mark.

Diacritics in English include the following:

  • Acute accent: used with certain French loanwords (for example, café, cliché) to indicate that the final e is pronounced
  • Apostrophe: used to indicate possession (children's) and the omission of a letter (don't)*
  • Diaeresis or Umlaut: used with certain names (Chloë, Brontë) and words (coöperate, naïve) as a guide to pronunciation
  • Grave accent: occasionally used in poetry to indicate that a normally silent vowel should be pronounced (learnèd)
  • Macron or Stress Mark: a dictionary notation (for example, pādā for payday) to signify "long" vowel sounds

* Because marks of punctuation aren't added to letters, they're generally not regarded as diacritics. However, an exception is sometimes made for apostrophes.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Etymology
From the Greek, "distinguishing"
 

Examples and Observations

  • Acute accent
    "Feluda handed over the blue attaché case before he sat down."
    (Satyajit Ray, The Complete Adventures of Feluda. Penguin, 2015)

     
  • Acute accent
    "Ms. Jackson has a soufflé of a voice—thin, delicate, pleasurably sweet."
    (Wesley Morris, "Sorry, Ms. Jackson: You're Underrated." The New York Times, August 8, 2016) 

     
  • Apostrophes
    "I heard the young missionary arriving from an errand in Father Philbert's brother's car."
    (J.F. Powers, "Death of a Favorite."  The New Yorker, 1951)

     
  • Apostrophes
    "'Let's go down to my house and have some more fun,' Nancy said.

    "'Mother won't let us,' I said. 'It's too late now.'

    "'Don't bother her,' Nancy said."
    (William Faulkner, "That Evening Sun Go Down." The American Mercury, 1931)

     
  • Diaeresis or Umlaut
    "Five young activists were voted into office, bringing political validation to a youth-driven movement dismissed by establishment elders as naïve, unschooled, and untenable."
    ("Youthquake." Time magazine,  October 6, 2016) 

     
  • Grave accent
    "Margret stood in her chamber;
    She'd sewn a silken seam.
    She lookèd east an she lookèd west,
    An she saw those woods grow green."
    ("Tam Lin." The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, ed. by Bertrand Harris Bronson. Princeton University Press, 1972)

     
  • Macron
    neighbor

    noun  neigh·bor  \ˈnā-bər\
    (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary , 11th ed., 2009)

     
  • Diacritics With Foreign Words and Names
    "Technically, there are only three accent marks: the acute accent, the grave accent, and the circumflex. Apart from the breve and the macron, which are termed pronunciation marks, the other marks added to certain letters are true diacritics. For most purposes, all are generically referred to as either accent marks or diacritics. . . .

    "For foreign words that have become common in English, no common rules can be given for when to retain an accent, or diacritic, and when to drop it. The language is in flux. It is becoming more common, for example, to see the acute accent and diacritics being dropped from the words cliché, café, and naïve—thus, cliche, cafe, and naive. . . . In many cases, the accent should be retained to avoid misreading: for instance résumé (or resumé) instead of resume; pâté instead of pate.

    "Accents and diacritics should be retained in foreign place names (such as São Paulo, Göttingen, and Córdoba) and personal names (such as Salvador Dalí, Molière, and Karel Čapek)."
    (Shelley Townsend-Hudson, The Christian Writer's Manual of Style. Zondervan, 2004)


    Pronunciation: di-eh-KRI-tik