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I was told here that not using diacritics (specifically the cedilla) is bad usage for those who know — I assume — their diacritics.

Is that correct?

Is garcon a correct spelling, in English, of the French loanword garçon? That is, is it valid to drop the cedilla?

In general, what do style guides and other authoritative sources say about using diacritics in English? Are there contexts — again, in established English words, loanwords or otherwise, not in quoting foreign texts or proper nouns — where:

  • the consensus among authorities is that diacritics must be used?
  • diacritics were once used, but are no longer in widespread use, even by professional typographers¹?
  • diacritics once in widespread use are actively discouraged today?

What is the general disposition of diacritics in modern English in professional writing and typesetting, taking into account prestigious sources in both print and online?

I'm more interested in proper orthography than in effective typography, but I'd appreciate perspectives from both fields².

I would like answers from a range of authoritative sources, like style guides (Chicago, AP, etc) or house styles (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, etc).


¹ For example, coöperation, belovèd of The New Yorker?

² Bonus points: what about ligatures? When debating this topic with my friends, should I cavil about diaeresis or diæresis?

  • 1
    Rather than adding commentary, please write an answer. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 22 '17 at 11:51
  • I think the ligatures come down to the fact it's quite unknown for the majority to use them (or to even think of using them). Especially as the Alt codes on a keyboard which would be the easiest way of getting them on most keyboards, while remember-able, don't offer that easy a method of typing the same character while "ae" work well-enough together. – gktscrk Jun 26 '17 at 19:16
37

The consensus is... there is no consensus. In fact, some of the style guides I checked didn't even mention it. In that case you can just use the spelling recommended by a dictionary. That's what The Chicago Manual of Style Online recommends:

Generally, we leave such things to the dictionary. Our main arbiter in matters of spelling—Webster’s eleventh—tends to preserve diacritics in words that are direct imports, especially when they are essential to pronunciation. So write appliqué, which happens to be the only option given in Webster’s. In the case of decor, the accent isn’t absolutely essential to pronunciation; that may be the reason Webster’s allows either decor or décor.


Many of the house style guides that I found did specify if/how to use diacritics.

The Economist:

On words now accepted as English, use accents only when they make a crucial difference to pronunciation: cliché, soupçon, façade, café, communiqué, exposé (but chateau, decor, elite, feted, naive). If you use one accent (except the tilde—strictly, a diacritical sign), use all: émigré, mêlée, protégé, résumé.

BBC:

We do not include accents - either in accented words that have passed into the English language or in foreign names - eg: He had his breakfast in a cafe and The Brazilian football legend Pele scored twice.

NY Times:

They give spellings for a number of words in their book (e.g. garçon, facade). All other words should be spelled according to a dictionary.

  • 4
    "If it makes a difference in the pronunciation" is the crucial element here. Most people won't know what a "GARKun" is if they hear it said yet would still recognize a "garSONE". – tchrist Jun 19 '17 at 21:17
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    @tchrist I rather disagree; the same accent means different things in different languages, so unless you already know the word or at least its language of origin accents are unhelpful. You may as well argue we need to change the spelling of "epitome." – Casey Jun 19 '17 at 22:01
  • I didn't know until just now that most of the words in the Economist list originally had diacritics! And I'm with @Casey. The idea that some people know what those diacritics even mean but don't already know how to pronounce the words in question seems unlikely to me. But maybe it's another quirk of Americans that we remain quite ignorant of characters outside of ASCII. Then again, those of us who remember typewriters can only consider the option of diacritics at all as a luxury. – Todd Wilcox Jun 20 '17 at 1:31
  • 1
    @Casey Please join the ELU chatroom to continue this discussion; it isn't suitable here. I just wish Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson could join us: I guess he doesn't like it when you call him Halpor. – tchrist Jun 20 '17 at 2:38
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    Even when it makes a difference to pronunciation, accents often fall out of use as the word becomes more naturalized into the language. Case in point: the accents would seem to be the easiest way to distinguish between the verb resume and the noun résumé. And yet many published books about how to write a professional-looking "résumé" drop the accents in their titles. I have to imagine that means that dropping the accents at the top of your "resume" isn't known to hurt your job prospects. – 1006a Jun 20 '17 at 3:10
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I do not think that garçon/garcon is an ideal example, as it is seldom used as an English word (i.e. it is generally only used only to refer to a French individual). A better loan-word with a cedilla is provided in the quotation in the answer by @user3293056 — the word façade/facade, which I would consider a word used in normal educated English speech, especially in an architectural context.

From the English dictionaries in my possession or online:

Chambers (iPhone edition)

garçon
façade and facade

Oxford Encylopedic English Dictionary (1991)

garçon
façade

(Italicization suggesting it is a foreign word, used, but not properly assimilated into English)

Cambridge Dictionary (online)

garçon
façade

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online)

garçon
facade

Conclusions

I, personally, would never use garçon/garcon as an English word. I think that is why the cedilla is retained by the dictionaries, and if I did use the word I would follow them. In contrast, the dictionaries that I have consulted suggests that modern (especially US) usage is to drop the cedilla from the more integrated loan-word, façade/facade. I did use Google ngrams to try to check this, but unfortunately these are based on scanned books, and inspection of individual cases where the books were in French (another problem) indicated that the scanning had missed cedillas, rendering the analysis useless.

  • Good point that garçon is rarely (if ever) used in English. +1 – marcellothearcane Jun 19 '17 at 19:38
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    Merriam-Webster is particularly pointed: If you look up cedilla there the definition actually includes "(as in the French word façade)", italics in the original—apparently explicitly distinguishing the French word with cedilla from the English word without. – 1006a Jun 19 '17 at 20:31
  • @1006a — very good point! – David Jun 19 '17 at 20:32
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    The problem with Google NGrams is it's mostly based off OCR, which makes errors with accents. – Laurel Jun 20 '17 at 0:56
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There's also the curious case of foreign words that normally wouldn't get diacriticals, but sometimes do in order to distinguish them from their English look-alikes. For example, the Japanese word sake, sometimes spelled saké.

  • 3
    I think this is very perceptive. Either the invented accent, or a different transliteration (sarkay?) would be necessary to distinguish this word from the common English word of the same spelling. In contrast, facade needs no accent to distinguish it from any pre-existing English word. It's now in everyday usage (and has spawned an -ism!), so the cedilla is superfluous. Garçon is, I think, still a French word. Unless it's in a specifically French-styled restaurant, the usual call is Waiter! – nigel222 Jun 20 '17 at 12:22
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Garner's Modern American Usage (2009) claims

enter image description here

cedilla /sә-dil-ә/ In some Romance languages (e.g., French and Portuguese), a diacritical mark that appears under the letter c to indicate that the letter is pronounced softly as an s rather than hard as a k. Most loanwords used in English that had cedillas are now usually spelled without soupçon–soupcon; garçon–garcon; façade–facade.

2

Dropping diacritics from written English has become much more common in more recent times and I suspect it will continue to trend that way, largely because adding accents is a pain on a standard English keyboard, and partly because foreign languages have lost favour in English education systems across the world.

As Laurel points out the approach is inconsistent across publications, however this is not completely arbitrary. You will find that more high-brow publications tend to use diacritics whilst those aimed at more general audiences do not. You will also find that privately educated individuals tend to use them more than people educated at state schools, and that people trained in the humanities use them more than people who are trained in the sciences. Accordingly the approach you take may depend on the environment you find yourself in and what is accepted in one environment may not be accepted in another.

But what matters more than whether you include them or not is whether you appear consistent. For general use, I'd suggest sticking to three rules which I think reflect the most common usage with a side-order of politeness:

  1. For any English word you'd write in normal text, leave them out
  2. For any word you treat as a foreign word, i.e. you show it in italics, leave them in.
  3. For names, leave them in, because people tend to object that their names are misspelled without them. I've seen quite a number of self-altered badges at conferences, for example.

This approach would lead to sentences that look like the following:

Behind the facade of the old French cafe, you will find the garçon, André, sleeping furiously.

  • 2
    I think the trend is more complex. Typesetters in English over the years (pre-computing) may have added more letters with diacritics. With computer coding, ASCII started off with just the upper and lower case 26, but was extended with escape codes. However, what's on your physical keyboard is what you know. With Unicode, even more characters are possible. I see more and more diacritics because input devices are making it easier to üßę thêm. So I think adding diacritics is becoming easier and easier. Also, you can just change your (virtual) keyboard so easily now – Mitch Jun 21 '17 at 13:35
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I think that if you require using a borrowed word in your writings such as «garçon» (usually done for style purposes or repeated in context, it ought to be spelled in French; otherwise, use 'boy'if you don't like it. france

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My comment was not an answer? The discussion was about when should one use diacritics. My answer was that one should use them when they are convenient. I cannot remember the entire Alt Key Code list. I remember the umlaut when writing in English because I think adding an "e" to a "u" makes the word look ugly. The acute accent is necessary when the pronunciation of a French word in English is radically changed without it. Looking up the entire list slows one down. All of the above information can be deduced from my comment. When I write in French it is perhaps good manners that impels me to use the cedilla. Otherwise I don't bother. I doubt there are any rules that govern the use of diacritics when using foreign words in English. If there are, since I do not know the Hindi alphabet, I have been in error every time I have written the word bungalow in English.

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