Sunday, December 11, 2011

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS: Foreign language in English text

Over the last three months I have written many articles about France for travel markets around the world that have contained a fair smattering of French words. Place names, people's names, titles of artwork, and snippets of conversation. Some of these words contain accents.

The puzzle: Should all French language be in italics? What should I do about the accents?

I looked up what I could and got conflicting advice. I checked my markets to see what they did - all differed wildly. A few even refuse to publish articles with small amounts of French used to create atmosphere.

So I consulted my editor extraordinaire, Joyce Gram. Turns out, it's a knotty problem. Here's her initial rundown of what to do about French in English text:

  • Don't italicize French place or people's names.
  • Consider deleting all accents, since the article is in English. But you should use accents for French words in italics used as French. For example, a sculpture called La Dame à l’offrande
  • There is an entire chapter called “French in English Context” in Editing Canadian English, 2nd edition.
  • Regarding people’s names, the above book says, “Every effort should b
    c. 1890
    Cézanne (image via Wikipedia)
    e made to determine, then follow, the preference of the person named . . .” Celine Dion omits the accent in English; Jean-Luc Pepin omitted the accent in both languages. It’s a little late to ask Cézanne (featured in several of your articles), but I’ll bet he would want the accent.
  • The only grey area is for words that have come into English. Dictionaries differ: for example, protege (Canadian Oxford) or protégé (Webster’s and Concise Oxford). 
  • But, Joyce says, don’t change château, as that’s in both the Canadian Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries.  
But chateau is spelled without the circumflex in the travel books and articles I looked at today. So perhaps my travel editors don't check the dictionaries? I'm huffing a lot at this point in my quest.

So, what to do? I fell back on the old tried and true rules, consistency and publishers’ guidelines. However my travel editors, it seems, know less about this issue than Joyce and most don't have guidelines on this issue. But, definitely I will keep Cézanne’s accent.

With much appreciation to Joyce Gram who has allowed me to quote from and paraphrase her advice above. She can be reached at and

Question: How do you manage foreign language in your English text?
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