French accents are sneaky creatures.
They wait in the dark, looking for an innocent letter to jump on and transform.
But what do they want exactly?
I mean, sure, they look stylish with their cute little shapes, but are they really necessary? Can’t you just, you know, forget about them?
That’s what you’re about to discover.
Oh, and you’ll also learn everything you need to know to type French accents on Windows and Mac even if you don’t have a French keyboard.
The guide to understanding and pronouncing French accents
The French language uses 5 different accents to indicate slight variations in pronunciation and distinguish between similar words:
Let’s look at the differences between these French accents!
L’accent aigu (the acute accent) is used on the letter “e” to indicate a change of pronunciation.
Unlike other French accents, you won’t find the acute accent on any other letter than “e”.
L’accent grave is used on the letter “e” to indicate a change of pronunciation and on the letters “a” and “u” to differentiate words that sound identical.
Il a faim (he is hungry)
Il va à Paris (He is going to Paris)
In the first sentence, the lack of accent grave indicates that “a” is the conjugated form of the verb avoir (to have) while the accent in the second sentence indicates that à is a preposition.
In the following sentences, the accent helps you know how to pronounce the words.
The difference of pronunciation between words containing a “e” with accent can be subtle so don’t worry if you struggle to hear it at first. You most likely need to train your ears first.
In fact, many native French speakers also struggle to tell the difference.
That’s not a big problem because pronouncing the wrong accent rarely creates confusion.
L’accent circonflexe can be used on all vowels to indicate a change of pronunciation or as a sign that there used to be an additional letter (often a “s”) in the word.
Words with accent circonflexe are often words that are similar in French and in English.
In fact, the only difference between an English word and French words (besides pronunciation) is often that the French word has un accent circonflexe while the English word has an “s”.
If you have French friends on Facebook or regularly read comments on French websites, you’ll notice that lots of people don’t use the accent circonflexe in informal situations.
That’s because using it is rarely necessary and the French love to shorten everything. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the accent circonflexe, just that you shouldn’t be surprised if you notice that your French friends often forget to write it.
In fact, using the accent circonflexe on words with «u» and «i» isn’t necessary anymore except if the accent helps differentiate several similar words.
This said, the majority of French people still use it and lots of people aren’t even aware of this change.
As a French learner, it’s safer to keep using the accent circonflexe in formal situations since lots of people aren’t aware of these new rules and may think not using the accent is a mistake.
Le tréma indicates that a vowel that’s normally pronounced as part of a group of syllables should be pronounced separately or that a normally silent letter isn’t silent.
Here, the trèma indicates that the “i” and “e” must be pronounced separately from the letter that comes just before them.
La cédille indicates that the letter c should be pronounced /s/ and not /k/
“Leçon” is the proof that French accents matter.
Forget the cedilla and you’re not saying “leçon” (lesson) anymore but “le con” (the idiot). Oups.
You’ll never find a cédille before ‘e’, ‘i’, and ‘y’ though because “c” before these letters is always pronounced /s/.
How to type French accents on Windows
There are many ways to type French accents in Windows and in Microsoft Word, and the right one for you depends on your preferences and on how often you write in French.
You could use ALT codes and type a number every time you want to write an accent, but this is pretty slow and annoying.
Instead, I recommend you to change your keyboard’s layout. You can use the UK extended or US international keyboards for example. These two keyboards allow you to use a combination of keys to type French accents while keeping your normal keyboard layout.
How to use ALT codes to type French accents on a PC
À : Alt – 0192
à : Alt – 0224
È : Alt – 0200
è : Alt – 0232
É : Alt – 0201
é : Alt – 0233
Ê : Alt – 0202
ê : Alt – 0234
Ç : ALT+0199
ç : ALT+0231
How to Change your keyboard layout to type French accents on Windows
- Open the Control Panel.
- Click on ‘Change keyboards or other input methods’ under ‘Clock, Language, and Region’.
- Click on ‘Change keyboards’.
- Select the language and layout (US International, UK extended etc) you want to use.
- Choose the language you want to use in the taskbar.
Note: the exact words used may vary but the procedure is similar for all these systems.
How to type French accents with the US international keyboard layout
Here is how to type French accents using the US international keyboard layout:
à, è : ` then letter
é : ‘ then e
ç : ‘ then c
ê : ^ (shift + 6) then e
ö : ” (shift + ‘) then letter
French quotations marks : ctrl + alt + [ ]
When you use the US international keyboard layout, you need hit the spacebar after typing ‘ if you want to use ‘ without a letter.
How to type French accents with the UK extended keyboard layout
` : ` then letter
é : ALT GR + e
ç : ALT GR + c
^ : ALT GR ^ then letter
” : ALT GR + ” then letter
How to type French accents on Mac
Mac OS makes it easy to type French accents out of the box with the option key.
é : option key + e
è, à : option key + ` then letter
ç : option key + c
^ : option key + i then letter
ë, ï, ü : option key + u then letter
And you, what’s your favorite way to type French accents? Answer in the comment section below!