When is it OK to use diacritics?

This is my last (and somewhat delayed) post in a series examining issues behind the use of (special) fonts and diacritical marks. The posts up to this point have tended to focus on the challenges, namely:

After such a long litany of bitching about diacritical marks, it would be reasonable to conclude that I (and most publishers) am opposed to their use in all instances. Not at all, but everything has its place.

So when is it OK to use diacritical marks? The short answer is, that depends. The long answer? Here is my take on the issue – but first a personal comment. In this blog, my idea has been to make general observations applicable to all authors working in the humanities and social sciences (and hopefully to many others, too). Unconsciously, though, I am carrying a lot of ‘baggage’. For instance, my experience is largely limited to English-language publishing (though located in a non-English country) and my comments on diacritical marks are framed by this. Sorry if my assumptions come across as grossly ethnocentric.

Language and common usage

The English language does not include diacritics (though it does have a few accents and other marks). Hence words and names determined to be English (and therefore included in an English dictionary) should not have diacritical marks. The result is that name describing the body of Muslim legal scholars that once was rendered in text as ulamā now appears plainly as the English word ‘ulema’. Similarly, although orthographically it may be more correct to render Japan’s capital city as Tōkyō, the correct name in English is Tokyo; this is what copy-editors will demand that is used.

The main argument in favour of this approach is not so much that the English word is more correct (though there are a lot of purse-lipped editors who would take this line) but rather that keeping to common usage promotes quicker comprehension. Common usage is one of the three C’s of all good writing discussed in our book.

Nor does this mean that foreign words and names cannot appear in English-language text, of course, or that they should drop their diacritical marks if they do. For instance, it would be plainly wrong and ridiculous to render ulamā as ulema in a block of transliterated Arabic text. Likewise, if a Japanese book title rendered in rōmaji includes the city name Tokyo, obviously the diacritics should be retained (i.e. Tōkyō should be used).

Of course it is another matter how many such foreign words and names should appear in your text, hence my earlier comments on clutter and other readability issues.


As is implied from the above discussion on language, location matters; the latitude in content and usage granted by editors for text set off from the main running text (in notes, references, block quotes, etc.) is far wider than what is acceptable in the main text itself. Again, this is influenced by considerations of readability (and the perception of many editors that notes and references, especially, are less important; they are often distractions ignored by the wiser reader). But ultimately here there can be no hard and fast rules; other factors like context and common sense should come into play here (see below).


Many scholars will argue (often vehemently) that diacritics are integral to scholarly accuracy. For instance, Jacqueline Stone of Princeton University states:

‘For all but the most common words, failure to use proper diacritics is in effect equivalent to misspelling, and like other kinds of misspelling, can create unnecessary difficulties in understanding or looking up names and terms and can even change the meaning of words.’ [link]

Returning to the above example, then, Tokyo may be a universally recognized place (and hence its name spelt in this plain form) but thousands of other places in Japan are unknown elsewhere; many have similar names. As Allan Grapard observes, ‘without diacritics, nobody could figure what place I am talking about’. [link]

In a similar way, the correct understanding of foreign terms often needs diacritics to be present.

Common sense

That said, meeting such needs can be handled intelligently. For instance, it is often possible to properly present a foreign word or name on its first appearance (with diacritics, non-Latin script or whatever) but thereafter use it in simplified form or even adopt an English equivalent. Readability is thus enhanced without loss of meaning. This approach may not always be possible but the key thing is to be aware of – and treat wisely – the divergent demands of scholarship and audience. Here, as is often the case, a pinch of common sense makes all the difference.

Readership/type of publication

It should almost go without saying that what you are looking to publish and for whom it is intended are important considerations. John Whalen-Bridge of the National University of Singapore suggests that we definitely think about this context.

When the discourse is among specialists, it is not necessary to jettison diacritics.  [But] a word that can appear without diacritics in a non-specialist article would look funny, kind of naked, if it appeared among its linguistic peers and relatives sans diacritical underwear. [link]


Just where you are looking to be published – by which press/journal – is another important factor. Like it or not, some presses stick rigidly to conventions that made sense fifty years ago in the age of hot-metal type but today look simply hidebound and conservative. If using diacritics is imperative for you and it is simply impossible to get round a publisher’s hostility to these, then I suggest you find a more suitable press. No press is irreplaceable.


Nonetheless, authors can win arguments with their publisher – and they need not necessarily be ‘big shots’ to do so. Assertiveness and a convincing argument from authors can often work wonders, as Jacqueline Stone recounts:

I’ve co-edited three volumes of scholarly essays on Buddhism, all published in the last three years with reputable university presses. In two cases, my co-editors and I relied on the JIABS list of Buddhist terms appearing in Webster’s Third International Dictionary and did not italicize these, but we did include full diacritics. This required some educating of both our copy-editor and the press editor (for example, we included the JIABS list with the ms. when we submitted it for copy-editing and explained why we were following it). In the third case — a volume intended as an undergraduate textbook — my co-editor and I italicized all Buddhist terms with the first usage and provided full diacritics for all names and terms with each occurrence. For all three volumes, although it may not have been their preference, the press editors agreed to full diacritics when we made clear that this was standard usage and expected in our field. So I’m cautiously optimistic that it may still be possible to hold the line on diacritics in academic publishing. [link]


In many of the points discussed above, the actual context can have an overriding influence. Rather than labour the point here, I would simply observe that hard and fast rules are nice to have but the actual situation needs to be considered on each occasion (and a healthy dose of common sense added to the analysis).

A final word

Ultimately, then, the use of diacritics is a difficult issue and one that calls for a skillful balancing act – how to stay perfectly true to one’s scholarship without unduly limiting one’s audience … or running out of publishers. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the next issue I am tackling is that of self-publishing. That discussion has in fact already started.


3 Responses to When is it OK to use diacritics?

  1. […] this, see the list of Buddhist Terms Found in English Print Dictionaries and Gerald Jackson’s series on fonts and diacritics in academic […]

  2. Don Wagner says:

    Hi Gerald –

    One more thing to be said about diacritics: Their use is a matter of tradition more than a serious practical question. Each academic specialty has its own traditions about this. Sanskritists and Arabists insist on the diacritics. But Sinologists don’t like tone-marks, for no obvious reason except that they are not used to seeing them in anything but language textbooks (where of course it is madness to leave them out, though that sometimes happens). It seems as if a new trend is appearing however – some sinological books are being published with tone-marks in their Chinese transcriptions, and my own immediate reaction is that the tone-marks get in the way of the reading experience. But who knows? In another generation maybe that will be the norm, and readers will be accustomed to seeing the Chairman’s name written Máo Zédōng.

    • Personally, I’d agree that diacritics slow me down when reading but, when I mentioned this on the H-Buddhism list last year, I was nearly sucked into the pit of my computer, scourged and crucified. There are indeed different traditions and varying attitudes on this matter.

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