Why Doesn’t English Have Accent Marks?

Thursday, October 282 min read

A lot of world languages use accent marks to help with pronunciation, but English is an outlier. For the most part, English spellings don’t have many exciting accents, umlauts, or tildes. Why is the English-speaking world so shy when it comes to accent marks?  

Let’s Get Diacritical

What most people call accent marks are formally known as “diacritical marks.” These are the tiny symbols added to letters to indicate a change in accent, tone, or stress.

Some English words use diacritical marks, but these are primarily terms on loan from other languages. You might notice words borrowed from French or German that still have an accent mark attached. Here are a few examples of the most common diacritical marks used in English, along with some of the words that contain the symbols:

Acute Accent


fiancé (add an extra “e” at the end for the female version, if keeping with the French tradition)


Grave Accent

à la carte










maître d'









When to Use Diacritical Marks

It depends on the dictionary and style guide, but in most cases, it's correct to write loanwords with or without the diacritical marks. In fact, sometimes a lack of symbols is preferred.

Typically, in English, the diacritical mark is dropped unless it helps distinguish the word from another that is spelled the same. For example, consider “resume” and “résumé.” One means “to begin again,” and the other is a list of job qualifications. Diacritical marks make the difference in meaning and pronunciation.

Take a look at the following sentence:

Zoe and Chloe ordered a souffle with a rose while discussing the latest expose at the cafe.

Would adding diacritical marks help make this sentence easier to read? For “Zoe,” “Chloe,” “souffle,” and “cafe,” diacritical marks wouldn’t clarify anything, but they could help us distinguish between the words “rose” (a flower) and “rosé” (a wine), and the words “expose” (to reveal) and “exposé” (a report).

Zoë and Chloë ordered a soufflé with a rosé while discussing the latest exposé at the café.

When they don’t serve a particular purpose, the marks have dropped off almost completely in English usage, such as with “élite,” “début,” and “hôtel.” However, The New Yorker still uses diaeresis to clarify pronunciation with two vowels side by side, such as “coöperate" and “reëlect.”

Why Doesn’t English Have Diacritical Marks?

So, why doesn’t English have diacritical marks in its own words? It’s likely related to the invention of the printing press in the 1400s. Early printers decided not to include the marks in many places, so they were dropped as spelling and pronunciation became more standardized.

Today, English-language typewriters and keyboards aren’t set up to easily add accent marks and umlauts to individual letters (although autocorrect tries to help). That means most style guides and dictionaries allow for dropping these symbols from words unless there’s a compelling reason to leave them in. Technology changes the game in the past and present.

Featured image credit: PeopleImages/ iStock

Daily Question