1647: Diacritics

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Using diacritics correctly is not my forté.
Title text: Using diacritics correctly is not my forté.


A diacritic (or a diacritical mark) is a glyph added to a letter. The main use of diacritical marks in the latin script is to change the sound-values of the letters to which they are added, typically vowels.

Cueball is writing an e-mail (maybe for a job application) and notes in the mail that he attaches his résumé. The word résumé uses two e's with an acute accent so they look like this: é.

While diacritics can be common in several languages, English is an example of a language that rarely ever has any at all. This occurs to such an extent that words and expressions borrowed from other languages (such as "résumé" or "déjà vu") are frequently written in English with the diacritics omitted, as in "resume" or "deja vu" (though grammatically the diacritics are needed to be technically correct).

As Cueball/Randall is an English-speaker, he naturally usually forgets (or just doesn't bother) to add these diacritics (hence the title of the comic). So when he occasionally remembers them, for instance when he types a word where he knows they should be included, then he makes up for all those he must have forgotten until now, and adds a whole bunch at once. This reason is somewhat nonsensical.

The first diacritic he uses is the normal acute accent for the e to make it an é which does belong in résumé. But the second diacritic he uses is a diaeresis (or umlaut) on the u making it into ü, which is not part of the word. (Although in French the u is pronounced like a [y], which is also the sound of a German or Turkish ü, and in German the word is spelt using this as Resümee, but then the meaning is not the same but rather conclusions or abstracts).

He then goes all in on the last e which, similar to the first e, is supposed to have an acute accent. This e has a cedilla (which normally looks like ȩ), a ring (as in e̊ ), three acute accents, and is topped off by a breve (which normally looks like ĕ). In total, six diacritics are used on this e alone. Some languages - notably Vietnamese - can use more than one diacritic per letter, but usually only two ( for example ṏ). Using them in this fashion makes little sense though it is reminiscent of Zalgo text.

To make sure everyone gets it, there are no less than three acute accents over the last full stop. This is not something that is ever used.

So for a word that is supposed to have two diacritics, Cueball uses eight, plus three for the full stop.

In the title text "not my forté" is supposed to mean that it is not one of Randall's strength or talent. However, to obtain this meaning forte should not have an acute diacritic over the e, thus proving Randall's point that it is not hís fṏrté to ûsë dïãcrítìcs.

The title text is a reference to the what if? released a week before this comic, Fire from moonlight, in which note 9 reads "My résumé says étendue is my forté." With the same error on "forte". Maybe he realized later that he had made a mistake in the note? Also étendue can be written without the accent as etendue and the meaning is only written on this page in the Wiktionary. It means property of the light in an optical system which makes sense in the context of the note. However, it means something different in French where it either refers to size or range as a noun or as a verb is an alternative form of étendre meaning stretch or spread. The most correct way of writing the sentence he tried to write would only have involved the accent on résumé: "My résumé says etendue is my forte." Thus again making it clear that Randall has it right when he writes: "Using diacritics correctly is not my forté."

Comic 1209: Encoding also references an absurd use of diacritics.


[Cueball sitting in front of his lap top typing. The text above him is the one he is typing. The last word résumé has too many diacritics. The u has an umlaut (as in ü) and the last é has no less than six diacritics; a cedilla below (as in ȩ), a ring above (as in e̊ ), then three acute accents above the ring (as in é), and finally they are topped off by a breve (as in ĕ). Also the last full stop has three accents "´" above it:]

Cueball (typing): Attached please find my résümȩ̊́́́́̆.́́́
[Caption below the frame:]
I usually leave out diacritics when I type, so I make up for it by occasionally adding a whole bunch at once.

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Not quite sure if and how to inlcude the fact, that the German writing of résumé is Resümee. So the ü used by Cueball/Randall ist not that far off. However in German the word is not used for a CV (or similar), but for conclusions / abstracts. Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 10:19, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

I have included it. --Kynde (talk) 20:31, 24 February 2016 (UTC)
Thanks! Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 08:37, 25 February 2016 (UTC)
There is a newsgroup reading software called Forté Agent, which was popular in the past. It uses the same silly spelling as the title text. Might Randall be referring to it? http://www.forteinc.com/main/homepage.php -- Lou Crazy (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

OT but I'm pretty amazed that my browser renders ȩ̊́́́́̆.́́́ properly. 11:09, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

I doubt that Randall **forgets** to add the diacritics. My guess is that he is leaving it out due to habit or custom (or laziness), as accented characters often got mangled in emails at the Internet of yore. Just as some sysadmins here in .cz, me included. 11:35, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

Well it fits with his error in hie what if that may explain this comic. It is no referenced, so I think he means that it is not his strength to put them right! --Kynde (talk) 20:31, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

Might have a relation with changes officially added to school manuals regarding the spelling of many words in french (removal of many accents), in order to simplify it that sparked some debate (1990 paper from Académie française in charge of normalizing/perfecting french language pushed by government few weeks(months?) ago). Zurgul (talk) 11:47, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

The top accent on the last e can be a caron [1]. It is hard to tell in hand-written text. Jkotek (talk) 12:18, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

In phonetics, you have to use many diacritics when describing unusual sounds narrowly. So you could end up with something like [ë̯̰̙̹̃́], which is a slightly rounded, nasalised, centralised, creaky-voiced open short e with retracted tongue root that has a high tone but does not serve as a syllable nucleus. -- 13:32, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

Forte means both loud and strong in both Italian and French -- 14:35, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

And also in music in English, so included that instead. --Kynde (talk) 20:31, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

When I first clicked on "explain xkcd" from Android app, I saw:

"@@@@@@@@ Pogo Game Technical Support Phone Number USA ------ ((((((((- - - - ------Call us on . . ." etc

I wondered whether it was part of the joke. But now I see that it is gone. I have a screenshot, but don't know how to include it. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

We have had a lot of spam. (Link is to version you saw). --Kynde (talk) 20:31, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

This comic looks like a mild example of Zalgo text, of which the most famous example (at least in my corner of the universe) is the "don't parse html with regex" answer on StackOverflow. 17:42, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

I was just going to mention the Zalgo-iness. You think this was intentional? ~AgentMuffin

I have seen similar jokes on punctuation. Like: "I know Im not good at putting in any punctuation So here is some you can put in yourself ..........,,,,,,,,,,------------""""""""" ''''''''' " I sadly have it this way with commas especially (but not only) in English. I can see that when others have copy edited my posts. But I think that is the great thing about wikis. The hard part is making the explanations, and the others can easily correct spell erroers etc.  :-) --Kynde (talk) 20:31, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

I'm a French native speaker, and I think I need more explanation. In English, you only use diacritics with words from other languages, right ? I guess "Résumé" comes from French (even if we only say CV), and forte/forté comes from Italian, am I right ? Then WHY do you write "forté" on a music sheet when in France, and I think in Italy too, we write "forte" ? Thank you for your potential answers. Seipas (talk) 21:06, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

As an Italian mother tongue speaker, I removed the reference to "forté" as musical term, and marked it for verification on Wiktionary. -- 21:39, 24 February 2016 (UTC) (Gengis Gat)
The explanation used to have a bit about how English speakers confuse the French-derived word "forte", pronounced /fort/, and the Italian-derived musical term "forte", pronounced /fortay/, and come up with a neither-fish-nor-fowl spelling of forté, which is of course incorrect in all three languages. Note that you emphatically don't write "forté" on sheet music, or anywhere else for that matter, unless you're misspelling it. 22:46, 24 February 2016 (UTC)
It's not quite true that English only uses diacritics on borrowed words.
  • English can use a diaeresis (¨) for hiatus when the spelling would otherwise be confusing, much like in French—e.g., in "noöne" or "coöperation". This is nearly obsolete, but the New Yorker still uses it, as do a few medical and biological journals (the Greek root "-oo-" in particular can be confusing…).
  • There are a few other completely obsolete rules that English used to have. For example, until around the mid-19th century, an acute accent could be used to mark a non-silent "e" where it would otherwise be confusing—e.g., the Sicilian-English Duchy of Bronte was once often spelled Bronté to distinguish it from the French town of Bronte (pronounced /ˈbrɒnti/ and /bront/, respectively).
  • Some of these obsolete rules still leave relics in proper names. There are people with the surname Bronté from back when the Duchy was spelled that way, and many American girls around 6-8 years old are named Chloë because the last time that name was popular, English spelling still used the diaeresis for hiatus.

Some pedants like to spell words with French diacritics that weren't actually borrowed from French, like "canoë" (which was actually borrowed into French from English, not vice-versa), or, most famously, 'naïve" (which was borrowed from French back before French had the hiatus rule).

But "forté" is even worse than "canoë"—at least "canoë" is the correct French spelling; "forté" is not the correct Italian spelling. The fact that it was correct English spelling centuries years ago isn't relevant (especially since English was almost never used on sheet music until pretty recently). When you see it on English sheet music in 2016, it's not because the ancient usage has been revived, but because someone mistakenly thought the Italian has a diacritic. Music tutorials often go out of their way to remind people that there is no such word as "forté" in either English or Italian, but people still keep making the mistake. -- 08:08, 28 May 2016 (UTC)

Just a note: In the transcript, the fancy ȩ̊́́́́̆ has one acute accent too much ;) (4 instead of 3)... 05:12, 25 February 2016 (UTC) fixed this already. --Kynde (talk) 13:03, 25 February 2016 (UTC)

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the macron over the i in "find". 00:45, 26 February 2016 (UTC)

Note that in French "résumé" means "summary" and is never used as a replacement for "CV". 22:13, 6 March 2016 (UTC)