English has no accents, formally known as diacritical marks, or diacritics. But many words that arrived from other languages do have them, sometimes. Is it “cafe” or “café”? “façade” or “facade”? “Jalapeño” or “jalapeno”?
The answer — as it is so often in English — is it depends.
In the days before computer-set type, accents were hard to produce, so most of the time they weren’t. Now, though computers can easily add any symbol, many news outlets still don’t use accents. The Associated Press Stylebook, for example, says, “Do not use any diacritical or accent marks because they cause garble for some users.” For example, some receiving computer systems use @ as a command: “@bt,” for example, tells the computer to “begin text,” or start a new file, and “@et” means “end text,” or end that file. That can cause a malfunction if an email address using “@” is transmitted.
But that’s a purely technical reason to not use accents; AP’s “Ask the Editor” online feature emphasizes that “it’s not a ban on usage.” So you can’t use AP as an excuse not to use accents.
Accents generally define the pronunciation of a word. The little comma-like cedilla under a “c” says to make an “ess” sound rather than a “k” sound, so “façade” is pronounced fa-SAHD rather than fa-COD. That tilde over an “n” in Spanish and related languages is actually a separate letter, called an “eñe,” pronounced like EN-yay, and gives “jalapeño” some more spice. (Despite what many think, “empanada” has no eñe, and its last two syllables have “nada” pronunciation.)
One compelling reason to use accents is to make clear what word you’re using. “Resume,” for example, is pronounced ree-ZOOM and means “start again,” until it gets accents; then it becomes “résumé,” pronounced RAY-zoom-may (though most of us say something closer to REH-zoom-may), and meaning a summary of your employment history. And if you do use the accents, remember that first one in “résumé” and “protégé,” which often are left out.
But do you need an accent in “café,” when few would pronounce it as “calf” instead of “caff-AY”? (In England, people do say “calf,” but they spell it “caff.”) Must you type “décor,” when there is no accent in “decoration”? How should you decide whether to use accents in certain words?
One way is to consult a dictionary. The Chicago Manual of Style uses Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and its abridged companion, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which, Chicago’s Q & A section says, tend to “preserve diacritics in words that are direct imports, especially when they are essential to pronunciation.” AP prefers Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which tends away from accents. Chicago’s dictionaries, for example, prefer “café” (but don’t accent “cafe car” or “cafe curtains”), while AP’s dictionary prefers “cafe.” Both prefer the cedilla-less “facade” and the accented “décor,” and give no eñe-less option for “jalapeño.”
Of course, if you’re using names or words from other languages, not words that have found their way into English, keeping the accents is always a good idea. In some cases, style guides call for using accents only for the main Romance languages — French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian — and in German. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says: “Do not use accents in words or names from other languages (Slavic and Scandinavian ones, for example), which are less familiar to most American writers, editors and readers; such marks would be prone to error.”
And that may be the best advice of all: If you don’t know how to use the accent, don’t.