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Foreign words: To accent or not to accent

A discussion-list summary article by Lisa Adair.

Recent postings to the Announcement List brought about a lively debate on the use of foreign words in technical writing. Accented letters occur frequently in foreign words. When writers don’t include the original accent marks, words like résumé become resume, thus creating ambiguity.

One of the posts said that non-native English speakers are pushing for the retention of accent marks. However, it does pose the question of where does it end? Should Greek words appear in the Greek alphabet? Should Russian names appear in the original Cyrillic script? What about “sounds” that are indicated with accent marks?

Plural grammatical features from other languages also become an issue. Is it forums or fora, antennae or antennæ, indexes or indices, appendixes or appendices? Most postings agree that context plays a large role in which spelling you choose. And words like wunderkind would never be pluralized as wunderkinds, but would be wunderkinder per native German.

Editing guides typically don’t get involved in these types of questions. Microsoft Manual of Style advises against using foreign words and phrases since they’re typically not understood worldwide. If your audience is not as diverse, foreign words and phrases might be perfectly acceptable.

Good dictionaries (American Heritage, Fourth Edition) list foreign words. Some German words like bildungsroman, zeitgeist, schadenfreude are listed as acceptable whether or not they’re capitalized. They also track the evolution of words quite well, even if they trail actual usage. For example, Rôle became role as it passed into the English language.

Generally speaking, everyone agrees that using original alphabets in scholarly works is acceptable, but will be viewed as annoying in technical writing. However, proper nouns should be written in the original alphabet as much as possible to respect the capitalization and markings of people who use them, that is, André Breton as opposed to Andre Breton.

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