Special Characters

Q. What is the rule for placing accents over capital letters in Romance languages? Is it the same for French, Spanish, and Italian, or does each language have different requirements?

A. The tendency to dispense with accents on capital letters does vary across languages. It is a common practice, for example, in French and Portuguese, less so in Italian and Spanish. This is at least partly a function of the larger number of accents in French and in Portuguese—not just more accents but more capitalized letters that would take an accent. Reasons for dropping accents from capital letters have ranged from the difficulty of employing such letters in older typesetting environments to the disputed role of accents in the modern world. Even today, the awkwardness of achieving them on computer keyboards—especially those whose default is English—continues to undermine their use. But this difficulty has become increasingly minor with advances in software applications—it’s barely an inconvenience, really—and there are fewer excuses not to use accents on capital letters as necessary. In sum, it’s best to use them. The Académie française, by the way, has issued a nice statement of policy in support of accents on capital letters that could apply to other languages (see “Accentuation des majuscules” at http://www.academie-francaise.fr/langue/questions.html#accentuation).