Special Characters

Q. We’ve been having a discussion in the office about whether to continue using diacritical marks on words such as decor and applique. The arguments turn on whether we consider them to be proper English words instead of imports, due to their familiarity to English speakers and the length of time that they’ve been part of the language. We couldn’t find a place where the editors addressed this issue in CMOS. Could you give us an opinion, please?

A. 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.

In any case, it is not true that English is without accents. I would guess that accents were often dropped in published material many years ago because of the extra difficulty of typesetting them—especially in the case of a word like façade (Webster’s prefers facade but allows façade; American Heritage prefers façade but allows facade). On that basis, I would guess that in the future, accents will become more rather than less common in English.