Accents are only a small part of learning to write in French, but that is not to say that they are unimportant. As a minimum they are part of correct spelling and learners of french are usually motivated to make the effort for a language they love.
There are also more practical reasons to make the effort.
- They often facilitate the understanding the grammatical role of a word (e.g. travaille or travaillé). This is usually clear in the context but it makes reading easier.
- They often have a role in helping to know how to pronounce a word.
- In limited cases, the accent may change the meaning of a word even when pronounced the same (eg ou or où).
- The circumflex accent is interesting in that it often indicates that a letter has been taken out of the original word (usually an “s”).
Remember that accents are not always considered necessary for capital letters.
If you are not using an AZERTY keyboard, typing accents is a little more difficult. You can reset the keyboard to act like an AZERTY keyboard on a Windows computer and on a Macintosh but it is very difficult to get used to and you would need to mark the keys to help you remember. This is not recommended. It is more practical to learn how to type these accents on a QWERTY keyboard.
Mobile devices such as phones and tables are the easiest. Simply press down and hold on the desired letter to see a range of accents to choose from.
I recommend that you change the keyboard layout to either the US international format or extended UK format. This is only a change in Windows settings, no keyboard change is required. This will work in most programs.
- 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 or use the key shortcut ‘Alt-Shift’ to toggle between keyboard setups.
Here is how to type French accents using the US international keyboard layout :
- Acute Accent: Press ‘ (apostrophe) followed by e.
- Grave Accent: Press ` (top left of keyboard) then type e, a or u.
- Cedilla Accent: Press ‘ (apostrophe) then type c.
- Circumflex Accent: Press ^ (circumflex) then type a, e, i, o or u.
- Umlaut Accent: Press ” (top left of keyboard) then type a, e, i or u.
- Œ (ligature of O and E): Press Control-Shift-7 then o.
- « (opening quote): Press Control-Alt-[
- » (closing quote): Press Control-Alt-]
- ê : Press ^ (shift + 6) then e
- ö : Press ” (shift + ‘) then letter
When you use the US international keyboard layout, you have to press the spacebar after typing ‘ or ‘ if you want to use an apostrophe or quotation. This is a bit annoying but you get used to it.
Apple Macinosh Computers
On the Macintosh there are keyboard shortcuts, which work on most applications.
- Acute Accent: Press Option-e then type e.
- Cedilla Accent: Press Option-c.
- Circumflex Accent: Press Option-i then type a, e, i, o or u.
- Umlaut Accent: Press Option-u then type a, e, i or u.
- Œ (ligature of O and E): Press Option-q.
- « (opening quote): Press Option-| (below delete key)
- » (closing quote): Press Shift-Option-| (below delete key)
strong>e, a or u.
In Word there are also some keyboard shortcuts, but unfortunately, these do not work in all (in fact in my experience, most) applications, such as Notepad. If you use Word a lot, it is a fast way to commence using the accents but in the long term, you probably will need to follow the method I described above.
- Acute Accent: Press Ctrl-‘ (apostrophe) then type e.
- Grave Accent: Press Ctrl-` (top left of keyboard) then type e, a or u.
- Cedilla Accent: Press Ctrl-, (comma) then type c.
- Circumflex Accent: Press Ctrl-Shift-^ (circumflex) key then type a, e, i, o or u.
- Umlaut Accent: Press Ctrl-Shift-: (colon) key then type a, e, i or u.
- Œ (ligature of O and E): Press Ctrl-Shift-& (ampersand) key then type o.
Give it a try
Once you have set up your keyboard, you will find that these shortcuts become second nature very quickly. As you grow in your learning of the French language, you will probably want to communicate in writing. When you do homework for your “French via Skype” tutor, why not start using accents?
Photo courtesy of The Graphics Fairy.