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All factors considered, I think “resumé” (one accent), though it has no historical basis, is the best spelling for this word when used as an English word to refer to a summary of someone’s qualifications for employment. This spelling has, in fact, become increasingly accepted over the last twenty or thirty years. “Resumé” in this sense is an English word, not a French one. It’s not pronounced like the French word. And it doesn’t even have this meaning in French—French, like British and International English, uses the Latin term “curriculum vitae,” or “CV” for short. (Both terms have a narrower sense in the U.S.)
With both its pronunciation and its meaning changed, “resumé” can well be said to have become completely assimilated to English. Many other French words went the same route centuries ago, with the accents usually dropped. Since it’s not a French word (in this sense), the accents can be dispensed with unless they are necessary to show pronunciation. But in this particular word, the accent over the final -e is still necessary, to indicate pronunciation and to distinguish “resumé” from the verb “resume.” (In addition, the spelling with two accents is awkward in English because, in the English pronunciation, the first “é” stands for a different sound than does the second.)
This is not a question the average job-seeker needs to sweat over. “Resumé” and “résumé” are always acceptable. “Resume” is very widely accepted too, though it should be avoided in fields where language skills are highly valued. Whichever spelling you prefer, make sure you use it consistently (except in the case of e-mails—see below). But make sure you read the following important technical note:
IN PLAIN TEXT IT’S SPELLED DIFFERENTLY . . .
At least in the U.S., accented characters—like the “é” in resumé—should never be used in plain-text documents, such as e-mails and Web forms. Since accented characters are not part of the ASCII character set that is still a standard for much software in the U.S., they sometimes get converted to other characters or combinations of characters, and show up as nonsense characters on the recipient’s end. In these documents, “resume,” without accents, is safest.
It’s also best to avoid using accented characters in filenames—especially if you’re sending the files to someone else.
HOW TO TYPE THE ACCENT
In Windows: In Word, you can type Ctl-' (that is, hold down the Control and apostrophe keys at the same time) and then press the ‘e’ key. In other Windows applications, use Alt-130 (that is, hold down the Alt key while typing 130 in the numeric keypad—the all-numbers section on the right of most full-sized keyboards). On a Mac: Press Option-e and then press the ‘e’ key. Unix systems are less standardized in this respect. Try Compose-e-'. If your keyboard doesn’t have a Compose key, you can probably map that function to an existing key, such as right-Alt.
By the way, it’s an accent, not an apostrophe—
There’s one way to spell it that’s always totally wrong: with an apostrophe instead of an accent, like this: resume’. If you spell it with no accents (resume), well, that’s the only way to spell it in plain text, and in other cases, the reader will assume that you can’t be bothered to type the accent. They may or may not downgrade you on that score. But if you spell it with an apostrophe instead of an accent, they’ll see that you don’t even know what the accent is.
You don’t have to sweat over the spelling of “resumé.” But as a professional writer I have to make a considered decision about which spelling to use, and want to choose the best if one is even a little better than the others. When you start looking closely at the question of how to spell the name of that vital piece of paper, it gets rather more complicated than most spelling questions are, because there are an unusual number of factors involved. In this case, sorting out those factors, weighing them, and working out the best balance between them is a matter for painstaking thought by experienced professional language mechanics with some specialized linguistic knowledge. I’ve had my shot at it, and the conclusions above are based on that effort. In case you’re interested, I’ve written down the details below.
THE WHOLE THING
The spelling with two accents follows the French spelling, but in the case of “résumé,” that spelling is problematic when used by English-speakers, for reasons given below. Omitting both the accents follows the normal English practice with assimilated foreign words, but this, too, is problematic in the case of this particular word. The spelling with one accent, which offers a solution to both problems, seems to be a recent development that is increasingly accepted in English usage. Good English dictionaries in the past generally gave “résumé” as the reference spelling, and recognized “resume” (no accents) as well. For instance, “resumé” isn’t found in the first edition of the Random House Dictionary (unabridged, 1966) or the full Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1989). More recent editions of authoritative dictionaries (Random House Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1987; American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd ed., 1992; and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 5th ed., 2002) also recognize “resumé.” The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (2000) gives “resumé” as the reference spelling.
The Shorter Oxford notes that the spelling “resumé” (one accent) is particularly associated with the sense of a summary of employment qualifications, which sense is “chiefly North American.”
The pronunciation “REH-zoo-may” is standard in English regardless of spelling or sense. (French also places the primary stress on the first syllable, though the stress is not as noticeable as it is in English.)
Good writers don’t depart from historical spelling without some strong reason that is widely recognized, and then only in those rare cases where there is no stronger reason for retaining the historical spelling. The development of a consensus about such changes takes time, even when the questions are simple enough to be decided by the accumulation of decisions made on the fly by knowledgeable writers.
In the case of the word “resumé,” however, there are an unusual number of conflicting factors bearing on the question. This complicates and slows down the evolutionary process. Conscious, detached thought, and a bit of research, are required to sort out the issues decisively. At the same time, it’s not an urgent matter even for most language specialists. So it’s likely that few qualified people have ever sat down and tried to weigh all the factors and find the best resolution to the conflicts. And in any case, it would take time for word to get around. This, perhaps, is why “resumé” is only shown in recent dictionaries. (The article on “résumé” at http://en.wiktionary.org/ is a good one. The postings I’ve seen on Web discussion forums only demonstrate the inadequacy of casual opinions on this particular question—whether they come from laymen or, worse, from the second-rate professionals who are the source of most of the writings on language and grammar seen by the public. This includes some books that pass for style guides in some offices.)
In the case of “resumé,” there is a strong reason for making a change from the historical spelling. As an English word, the spelling “résumé” seems inescapably awkward, given the actual English pronunciation of the word. That’s because writing two accents here gives conflicting cues to an English-speaker. With the English pronunciation, if the word is spelled with two accents, the same sign represents two different sounds in the same word—in the first syllable, ‘é’ is pronounced like the short ‘e’ in bet, in the third syllable it is pronounced like the long ‘a’ in “may.” (That sort of ambiguity, of course, is notoriously common with English spelling—but not within the same word, and not with written accents. “Résumé,” as far as I know, is the only word used in English that presents an ambiguous case with written accents, so there is no group of similar cases that can constitute a generally accepted rule for pronunciation. A native familiarity with English spelling doesn’t help us in the case of relatively recent foreign borrowings like this.)
Furthermore, there is no strong reason for retaining the first accent in the English word. Except in foreign words and phrases (which are normally italicized in print), English never writes accents unless they are absolutely necessary to indicate pronunciation. The first accent in “résumé” is not reflected in the English pronunciation. If it were, I’d say “ray-zoo-may,” not “reh-zoo-may.” (If I were speaking French, I’d say “hray-zoo-may.”) Someone reading “résumé” knows, of course, how the word is pronounced. But there’s still a hitch in the reading while the signs are interpreted. If there are too many little hitches like this, they add up to a document that is difficult to read, which distracts the reader from the content and creates a bad impression. Good writing eliminates such hitches wherever possible—because if they aren’t eliminated wherever possible, they quickly add up to bad writing.
Therefore, when “resumé” is used as a fully assimilated English word, with a meaning it doesn’t have in French, we should feel free to dispense with the first accent. The second accent, however, is still highly desirable for the purpose of distinguishing “resumé” from the verb “resume,” and more generally for the purpose of indicating that, unlike most words in English with a final -e, the final syllable is pronounced. (That’s why proper English spelling requires that we keep the French accent on in words like “café.”)
Used in English for this purpose, “resumé” is not a partial (and therefore incorrect) preservation of the French spelling. It is an ad hoc, unhistorical improvisation of the sort that has long been used in a few exceptional cases where historical spellings and normal spelling conventions yield results that are consistently felt as awkward even by practiced English-speakers.
Another instance of such unhistorical improvisation that is sometimes seen is the spelling “uncoördinated” (with a diaeresis over the second ‘o’). Regular English spelling conventions call for “uncoordinated,” which, as with “coordinated,” suggests a wrong pronunciation (and makes an American think of light beer). The usual device of a hyphen (as in “co-ordinated”) yields “unco-ordinated.” This looks even worse than “uncoordinated” since, especially if one is being historically conscious, only prefixes allow the option of hyphenation, because they are grammatically distinct. But unlike “co-,” “unco” is not a prefix. (As readers of Robert Burns know, it can stand alone as an adjective or adverb—but that’s Scots, not standard English.) “Unco-” in “uncoördinated” is, to be sure, a joining of two prefixes. But since combinations of two prefixes are somewhat unusual, and their separation from the main word by hyphens quite rare, “unco-,” when first seen, prompts the mind to try to interpret it as a single prefix, which leads to a dead end. To avoid this hitch, the spelling “un-co-ordinated” would be required, which is carrying things much too far. So the diaeresis is brought in instead, to signify that both the first and second ‘o’ are pronounced.
Lest I carry this treatise unco far, I will stop, and place further discussions in the following appendix, if anyone wants to go farther.
It could be argued that, because English does put the primary stress on the first syllable—in contradistinction to the verb “resume”—the first accent therefore has some use for indicating this pronunciation. I believe, however, that there is no real necessity for this. Subject to correction by specialists in English phonology, it seems to me that it’s natural for someone starting to read the word “resumé” to put the primary stress on the first syllable. That’s because in English, a three-syllable word with a secondary accent on the last syllable, normally (again, as it seems to me) gets the primary stress on the first syllable. Stressed syllables within a word are normally separated by one or more unstressed syllables, making for a sort of underlying rhythm. (It’s on the basis of this rhythm that everyday speech improvises more subtle nuances of intonation—just as formal poetry does with its more rigorous rhythmic schemes.) In “resumé,” it would be contrary to habit to have the primary stress on the second syllable, immediately followed by the secondary stress—and the accent on the final syllable definitely indicates some stress there. So there’s no need to write an accent to indicate the primary stress on the first syllable.
English-speakers (or at least, American-speakers) only rarely use the borrowed French word in its original, general sense, to mean “a brief summary” of whatever is being spoken of. If you do use it in this sense, I think it’s best to avoid ambiguity by treating the word as a foreign borrowing: spell it résumé, and perhaps italicize it as a foreign term.
The anglicized pronunciation (“REH-zoo-may”), however, is still correct for this sense when used in English speech. Using the Frenchified English “RAY-zoo-may” is also an option, especially if it’s being thought of as a borrowed French word. Like most English “French,” it’s really a half measure. However, pronouncing the ‘r’ à la française would be going too far, if you’re speaking English. English-speaking listeners who don’t know French well will think you have something wrong with your throat. Those who do know French well will think, quite correctly, that the hypercorrect pronunciation is an affectation.
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