French Accent Marks: How To Read These Mysterious Symbols

French accents marks are a big challenge for beginner French students, especially when it comes to reading them. The names of the French accents are: the l’accent aigu (é), l’accent grave (è), le circonflexe (ê), l’accent tréma (ë) and la cédille (ç).

The purpose of this post is to demystify the French accents and explain the pronunciation so you can start to incorporate them into your reading and speaking.

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Getting French pronunciation down is tricky. Here you can master the reading rules and alphabet and -r sounds. My friend, Camille, at also offers a very comprehensive guide to French accents including typing instructions.

French accents in a nutshell

In a nutshell, here are the French accent marks:

  1. é l’accent aigu acute accent
  2. à, è, ì, ò, ù l’accent grave grave accent
  3. â, ê, î, ô, û l’accent circonflexe circumflex
  4. ë, ï, ü l’accent tréma diaeresis
  5. ç la cédille cedilla
French accent marks

1) Acute accent (l’accent aigu)

L’accent aigu is an upward slanting accent and appears only over the letter -e and looks like this: é. Of all the French accents this one is by far the most important as it’s used very widely throughout the language and has a big impact on how the -e is pronounced.

How to pronounce the accent aigu

Many French teachers and writers of French textbooks will suggest that e accent aigu sounds like the -a in the English word bed. However, here at, I tell my private students that when they see an read it as -ay as in play. If you’re reading this and disagree with me that’s fine.

Usages of é accent aigu

É accent aigu has a ton of usages. The first one we’ll look at is the last letter of many French adjectives:

  • occupé busy
  • salé salty
  • épicé spicy
  • fatigué tired
  • protégé protected
  • distingué distinguished
  • raffiné sophisticated
  • épuisé exhausted

L’accent aigu can appear in or at the end of countless French nouns. Par example:

  • été summer
  • café coffee
  • musée museum
  • épaule shoulder
  • désir desire
  • sécheresse drought
  • pâté (same in English)
  • naïveté naivety, gullibility
  • médecin doctor
  • poésie poetry

For regular -er verbs, the -er is removed and replaced with to form the past participle. Par example:

  • parlé spoke
  • donné gave
  • mangé ate
  • dancé danced
  • téléphoné called, telephoned
  • travaillé worked
  • écouté heard
  • préparé prepared
  • cuisiné cooked
  • voyagé traveled
  • chanté sang

2) Grave accent (l’accent grave)

This is the downward sloping accent that appears over the following letters: -à, -è and .

accent grave

How the accent grave is used

The accent grave has two primary usages: 1) to alter the pronunciation of the letter -e and 2) to differentiate homonyms (two words that are spelled the exact same way, are pronounced the exact same way but have different meanings).

What do I do when I see accent grave over an -è?

First we’ll take a look at how the accent grave is used over the letter -e and its effects on pronunciation.

Some textbooks called the -è and “open” sound and liken it to the -a in bad. Personally, I suggest to my private students to read the -è as “eh” or the -e sound in American English “get”. If you choose to disagree with me on this point that’s totally fine. Let’s look at some examples of -è in common words:

  • mère mother
  • père father
  • frère brother

In addition to these examples listed above, the accent grave over the -è can be found in lots of other words. Again, pronounce the -è like -e in get. Par example:

  • première first (feminine)
  • chère expensive (feminine)
  • mètre meter
  • grève strike
  • grève strike
  • collège colleague
  • scène stage
  • fièvre fever
  • après after
  • Grèce Greece
  • siège seat, chair
  • lèvres lips
  • poème poem
  • pièce room, play
  • procès process
  • Suède Sweden
  • règle rule
  • très very
  • interprète interpreter
  • crème cream
  • fidèle faithful

Accent grave vs. aigu

Some words have both an -e accent aigu (é), which I suggest to pronounce as -ay as in play and an accent grave. This poses a question: What do I do here? The answer is simple: pronounce -é as ay and -è as eh or the -e sound in get. Try saying these:

  • je préfère I prefer
  • je célèbre I celebrate
  • je révèle I reveal

Now we’ll look at words where the accent grave distinguishes between two homonyms. It’s crucial when writing to include these accents where necessary. If not you only have a 50% chance of writing the word correctly!

  • là there vs. la the (feminine)
  • à to/at vs. a he/she has
  •  where vs. ou or

3) Circumflex (le circonflexe)

The circumflex accent is the little hat (le petit chapeau) accent that appears over the following letters: , -û. The accent has two main purposes 1) Replacing and -s, and 2) Distinguishing homophones. In some words such dîner (to eat, have dinner) the accent seems totally useless. Indeed, there’s been lots of talk over the years about doing away with the beloved circonflexe (links to articles on this subject below).

Where some English words have an -s, their French equivalents omit the -s and use an accent circonflexe over the vowel preceding where the -s would have been in old French.

Par example:

  • l’île island
  • la forêt forest
  • l’hôpital hospital
  • les pâtes pasta

more common words with the circumflex replaces an -s

  • ancêtre ancestor
  • arrêter to stop, arrest
  • août August
  • la bête beast 
  • la bêtise mistake
  • le château castle
  • le cloître cloister
  • la conquête conquest 
  • la côte coast
  • le coût cost
  • la croûte crust, scab
  • dégoûtant disgusting
  • être to be
  • l’enquête survey, poll, inquest
  • le fantôme ghost (Latin phantasma)
  • la fenêtre window
  • la fête holiday, feast
  • le gâteau cake
  • l’hôte host
  • l’hôtel hotel
  • hâter to hasten, speed up
  • l’interêt interest
  • les Pâques Easter
  • la pâtepastry, dough
  • le prêtre priest
  • rôtir to roast
  • la tempête tempest (storm)
  • le vêtement clothing (from vestment)

Does the circumflex affect pronunciation?

While some might argue that l’accent circonflexe has an impact on the pronunciation when it appears over the -a, -e, and -o, I believe the effect and argument for that matter are purely academic. Discuss among yourselves!

Distinguishing between homophones

The circumflex is also used to distinguish between homophones (words spelled the same which have different meanings).

Par example:

  • sûr certain, sure vs. sur on, on top of
  • tâche task, chore vs. tache stain
  •  past participle of devoir vs. du some or contraction of de + le
  • mûr ripe vs. mur wall

4) Diaeresis accent (l’accent tréma)

Of all the French accents the tréma is probably the least common. The accent appears over the letters  and . When two vowels appear next to each other and one of them has a diaeresis , both vowels get pronounced. Hence, when you read Noël (Christmas), both the -o and -e get pronounced: “noh-el”. Is this a coïncidence (pronounced: coh-incidence)? I think not.


Here are some examples of words with the tréma accent:

  • ambiguïté ambiguity
  • archaïque archaic
  • Jamaïque Jamaica
  • naïf/naïve naive
  • Caraïbes Caribbean
  • maïs corn
  • mosaïque mosaic
  • Thaïlande Thailand
  • Michaël Michael

Cedilla (la cédille)

The cedilla (la cédille) is the little squiggly mark that appears under the letter -c. It looks like this: -Ç -ç. The function of the cedilla is to make the letter -c have a soft sound like -s as in Sam. The ç is found before the letters -a, -o and -u.


With the cedilla, ça va sounds like sa va. Without the cedilla it would sound like ka va. Separately, without the cedilla français would sound like frankay. Est-ce que tu parles frakay?

Note that before the letters -e and -i the -c automatically has a soft sound. Hence, la cédille is not needed. Examples: cerise (cherry) or ciseaux (scissors).

Common words which have a cedilla

  • balançoire swing
  • Besançon city in France
  • commerçant shopkeeper
  • déçu disappointed
  • façade façadefront
  • façon way, manner
  • fiançaille betrothal, engagement
  • FrançoisFrançoise first name
  • garçon boy
  • glaçon ice cube
  • leçon lesson
  • maçon mason
  • reçu receipt
  • soupçon suspicion

Stem changing -cer verbs

In my lesson about regular -er verbs with spelling changes I showed that infinitives ending in -cer add a cedilla in the first-person plural (nous) forms. Again, the cedilla here is use to make the -c a soft -c. For example:

  • nous prononçons we pronounce
  • nous commençons we start
  • nous annonçons we announce
  • nous menaçons we threaten

French accents copy and paste

If you’re trying to figure out how to type the French accents but can’t seem to do it, one option is imply to copy-paste into your text. Here are the all the French accents including the capital letters as well as the quotation marks and euro symbol:

é è ê ë É È Ê Ë | à À â  | ù û ü | ç Ç | æ | î ï | ô œ | £0 € | « »

Let’s review the French accent marks:

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About David Issokson

David Issokson is a lifelong language enthusiast. His head is swimming with words and sounds as he speaks over six languages. Of all the languages he speaks, he's the most passionate about French! David has helped hundreds of students to improve their French in his private online lessons. When procrastinating working on his site,, David enjoys his time skiing and hiking in Teton Valley, Idaho.