French letters and accents

What are the rules in France?

IS THERE a rule on whether French words should have accents on capitals? B.L.

Strictly speaking accents should be used at all times on capitals as well as on lower case letters as they can clarify meaning and pronunciation or distinguish between words that otherwise look the same.

However a tradition of them not being used in printing dates back to moveable type, when it was often found to be simpler to avoid them – notably because the lead pieces of type were of standardised sizes and an accent could make letters too high.

What is more, French Azerty keyboards have special keys for typing lower case accented letters but none for accented capitals (while they can be done on computers, it requires putting in special codes).

Practices vary from one publication to the next, for example, Le Monde’s website uses them if words are written entirely in capitals but not otherwise (technically, in French in the first instance the letters are called capitales, as opposed to the usual majuscules).

Having said this the Académie Française “deplores” the habit of omiting them out and recommends they be used consistently.

Practices in handwriting also vary with people often leaving them out, though an accented À is frequent, to distinguish from the third person of the verb avoir.