French accents are sneaky creatures.
They wait in the dark, looking for an innocent letter to jump onto 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 thans to the power of Alt codes.
The guide to understanding and pronouncing French accents
French accents and accented letters go by several names. You might hear “French accents” or “French diacritical marks” for the linguists out there. Or when talking about a letter and accent combination, you’ll probably come across terms like “French characters” or “French symbols”.
Whatever you call them, they play a big role in the French language.
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 from the a silent or typical “e” pronunciation, to one that is distinctly pronounced. Here are some words with an é that you’re probably familiar with:
Unlike other French accents, you won’t find the acute accent on any letter other than “e”.
L’accent grave (grave accent) 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.
Look at these two sentences:
Il a faim (he is hungry)
Il va à Paris (He is going to Paris)
In the first sentence, the lack of an 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.
This isn’t a major problem, though, because pronouncing the wrong accent rarely creates confusion.
L’accent circonflexe (circumflex)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 an “s”) in the word.
Words that have a letter with an accent circonflexe are often similar in French and in English.
In fact, often, the only difference (besides pronunciation) is that the French word has an accent circonflexe while the English word has an “s”. For instance:
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 your French friends often forget to write it.
In fact, using the accent circonflexe with the letters ‘u’ and ‘i’ isn’t necessary anymore, except if the accent helps differentiate between similar words (for example, du and dû).
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 (diaresis) 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. For example:
In these words, the tréma indicates that the “i” and “e” must be pronounced separately from the letter that comes just before them.
La cédille (cedilla) indicates that the letter “c” should be pronounced /s/ and not /k/
The word leçon is the proof that French accents matter.
Forget the cedilla and you’re not saying leçon (lesson) anymore but le con (the idiot/asshole). 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, in my opinion.
Instead, I recommend changing your keyboard’s layout. You can use the US International or UK Extended keyboards, for example. These two keyboards allow you to use a combination of keys to type French accents while keeping your normal keyboard layout.
Still, everyone is different, so you may prefer ALT codes. Let’s have a look at both ways to type French accents in Windows and Microsoft Word.
How to use French accent codes (ALT codes) to type French accents on a PC
As I’ve said, ALT codes can be slow and annoying, but some people get used to them and even prefer them to other methods of typing French accents.
To use an ALT code to type a French accent:
1. Hold down the “Alt” key to the left of the space bar, and at the same time, type the number code that corresponds to a specific character. Note that this will only work if you type the numbers from the keypad, not the ones above the letters on the keyboard.
2. When you’ve finished typing the code, release the “Alt” button. The French character should appear.
Here are the French accented characters and their corresponding ALT code.
- À : Alt – 0192
- à : Alt – 133 or Alt – 0224
- Â Alt – 0194
- â Alt – 131 or Alt – 0226
- Ä Alt – 142 or Alt – 0196
- ä Alt – 132 or Alt – 0228
- È : Alt – 0200 or Alt – 0200
- è : Alt – 138 or Alt – 0232
- É : Alt – 0201 or Alt – 144
- é : Alt – 130 or Alt – 0233
- Ê : Alt – 0202
- ê : Alt – 136 or Alt – 0234
- Ë : Alt – 0203
- ë : Alt – 137 or Alt – 0235
- Î : Alt – 0206
- î : Alt – 140 or Alt – 0238 or Alt – 0206
- Ï : Alt – 0207
- ï : Alt – 139 or Alt – 0239
- Ô : Alt – 0212
- ô : Alt – 147 or Alt – 0244
- Ù : Alt – 0217
- ù : Alt – 151 or 0249
- Ü : Alt – 154 or Alt – 0220
- ü : Alt – 129 or Alt – 0252
- Û : Alt – 0219
- û : Alt -150 or Alt – 0251
- Æ : Alt – 0198
- æ : Alt – 0230
- Œ : Alt – 0140
- œ : Alt – 0156
- Ç : Alt – 0199 or Alt -128
- ç : Alt – 135 or Alt 0231
You can find ALT codes for additional French characters here.
How to Change your keyboard layout to type French accents on Windows
When I mentioned changing your keyboard to type French accents, the good news is that this is completely free and doesn’t involve buying a physical keyboard. Instead, using your computer’s settings, you can change how the keys are read.
Here is how to change your keyboard to a US International or UK Extended keyboard.:
- 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.
For specific instructions for each version of Windows from Windows 95 to Windows 8, have a look at this article.
To change your current keyboard to a US International or UK Extended keyboard in Windows 10:
- Open the Start menu
- Click on the gear symbol (Settings)
- Click on “Time & Language”
- Choose “Language” from the list on the left side of the window.
- Click “English (United States)” or “English UK”, depending on the language your computer is currently set to.
- Click “Options”
- Under “Keyboards,” click “Add a keyboard”
- Select US International (or UK Extended)
If that seems complicated, don’t worry. Here’s a step-by-step guide with screen grabs.
If you want to change your keyboard back for some reason, here’s how to do that.
How to type French accents with the US international keyboard layout
Once you’ve changed your keyboard, here’s 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
- tréma (example: ö ): ” (shift + ‘) then letter
- French quotations marks : ctrl + alt + [ ]
Note that 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
- ^ (example: ê) : ALT GR ^ then letter
- tréma (example: ö ) : 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. You can see a video demonstration of this here.
- é : option key + e
- è, à, ù : option key + ` then letter
- ç : option key + c
- â, ê, î, ô, û : option key + i then letter
- ë, ï, ü : option key + u then letter
- Œ, œ : option key + the “q” key
For some versions of Mac, as well as Apple devices like iPads and iPhones, by pressing or holding down a letter. A box with suggested characters will appear and you can select the one you want to use. You can also choose a French keypad option along with your other keypads (for example, English, emoji…). The French keypad gives you some shortcuts, like typing a letter followed by an apostrophe, which will show up as the letter with an accent aigu.
Other ways to type French characters
If none of these solutions speak to you, there are a few other ways to type French accents. These include:
• Online French accent typing screens and French accent software. These are websites that allow you to type in a text box and add French characters either by clicking on them or holding down a key and selecting which accent you want over a particular letter. The French version of TypeIt is completely free, while Eàsy Type has a free online version and also offers inexpensive software.
Speaking of software options, as you can see in the comments section of this article, one of our own French Together readers has created an app called keyxpat, which you can read more about here.
• Use “insert” in Word. Most versions of Microsoft Word have an “insert” option on the menu at the top of the screen. In Windows 10, Word features an “Insert” tab. Select this and you’ll find a “Symbol” option at the far right. Click on it to find a menu of accented letters. Click on the letter you want, and it will be inserted into the document you’re working on. This feature has a memory function, so as you use it, the accented letters you input the most often will be at the top of the menu.
• Change your keyboard to French. Some operating systems or computers will allow you to change your current keyboard into a French one, the same way you can change your keyboard to US International or UK Expanded. The only problem here is that the keys won’t correspond to the ones you see in front of you, and that can make a big difference, since French keyboards are AZERTY instead of QWERTY. But if you’re familiar with French keyboards, this is an option worth considering.
• Change your keyboard to French Canadian. Yet another option is to change your keyboard to French Canadian. Many people who type in both English and French prefer this option, since the French-Canadian keyboard is nearly identical to US and UK QWERTY keyboards. But there’s no need to use codes or any special keys to type accents. For example, to get à, type the apostrophe key and then the “a” key. You can read more about how to make French characters with the French-Canadian keyboard here.
• Autocorrect – In some cases, as with a very common French word or if your computer or mobile device is set up to have French as one of its language/keyboard options, you may be able to type a word without an accent and have it corrected automatically or when you run spellcheck. This isn’t completely infallible, though, especially for complex sentences. For example, your computer might not realize that an -er verb should be in the past tense. So this is probably the least effective strategy on the list.
• Copy/paste – If all else fails, type a French word into your internet search engine and copy the accented letter(s) you get in the results.
For example, if you need an “e” with an accent circonflexe, type a word like “la bete” (no need to add the accent, since that’s what you don’t have!) into your search engine. Then, copy the ê from one of the listed results.
When it comes to writing in French, accents are a necessary evil. Luckily, as you can see, there are lots of solutions for typing them. Now it’s up to you to find the one that you like best.
Do you have a favorite way to type French accents? Feel free to share it with us in the comments.