Q: I’ve noticed that the New Yorker magazine uses an umlaut in the word “reëlect.” I guess this is to show that the two e’s are not pronounced together, but I find it peculiar. Can you explain this to me and perhaps suggest other places where an umlaut might be appropriate in English? I do not intend to start using it; I’m just curious.
A: The mark you’re talking about is called a dieresis in English. The dieresis (pronounced dye-AIR-a-sis) is sometimes used when two vowels come together to show that the second is pronounced as a separate syllable. The mark was once more common, but you don’t see it much anymore (sometimes over the i in “naive,” the second o in “cooperate,” or the i in “Zaire”). The New Yorker is one of the few journals that still routinely use the mark, which to a lot of people looks antiquated or anachronistic.
The New York Times has mostly dropped it, except in “naïve,” “Citroën,” “Saint-Saëns,” “Perrier-Jouët,” and a few other examples. Rather than use a dieresis, the Times hyphenates the word “co-op” (for a cooperative apartment) to differentiate it from the kind of “coop” that means a chicken coop. The Times does use umlauts in some German names (like Düsseldorf) but not others. For instance, the Times uses “Goering” for the name of the infamous Nazi, instead of “Göring.” All this stuff is a matter of style, and varies from newspaper to newspaper, company to company. The result is that in the New Yorker you’ll see “reëlect” while in the Times you’ll see “re-elect.”