The Grammarphobia Blog

Why do dictionaries accessorize the alphabet?

Q: Why aren’t the 26 unadorned letters of our alphabet enough for the people who write dictionaries? What bothers me is looking up a word and finding foreign accents or funny pronouncing squiggles. Of course, I’d like to have every dictionary bend to my will. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest!

A: Consider it off your chest! But we have to stick up for the dictionaries here.

In spelling words derived from foreign languages (mostly French), some dictionaries retain the accent marks and some do not, based on prevalent practices in common usage. Most of the time, alternative spellings are offered.

In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for instance, you’ll find “chateau, also château,” but later you’ll find “cliché, also cliche.”

The “also” means the second spelling is less common although both are correct. So the lexicographers at American Heritage think “cliché” is clinging to its accent (at least for now), but not “chateau.”

Over time, you can expect that most borrowings into English will become thoroughly Anglicized and lose their accent marks.

If you’d like a quick reference to the most frequently used accent (or “diacritical”) marks, we did a recent blog entry on the subject (go to the end of the post).

There are tables on the Internet that can show you how to type in accented letters on your PC or Mac. (Sometimes the fastest way to reproduce an accented word is to copy one from another document.)

As for the unusual-looking symbols that dictionaries use to give pronunciations of words, there’s a reason those are there, too.

The editors feel that these symbols provide a tidy, economical, and consistent system for advising readers how words are pronounced.

And it’s easy enough to tell how the symbols sound.

Just glance at the pronunciation key that appears in the lower-right corner of every right-hand page in American Heritage (or in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.).

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