The sounds /e/ and /ɛ/ and how they are spelt in French.

Level A1.1 / A1 Spelling

Reference of the lesson: SPVA1-ZT56 

The sound /e/ 

The sound /ɛ/ 


Written lesson
Videos with examples to illustrate the lesson


So it is very important not to confuse the sound itself, and the spelling of this sound. 

In French, the sounds /e/ and /ɛ/ can be spelt, in our words, in different ways:

Chapter 1 

1) "é", which is an "e" with an accent starting from the top right and going down to the bottom left. It is called "aigu". 
Don't worry, you have some examples of words in the first video below. 
Just one example with "é"? Ok... Let me think... Hétérogénéité. Hard to find a word with more "aigu" accents than this one... 😉 It means, as you can imagine, heterogeneity.

2) "er". In French, this combination of letters can (it does not always) form the sound /e/.

3) Even more surprisingly, you can also have (very, very rarely) "et", but also "ef", "ed" and "ez" as combinations of letters that can form the sound /e/.

Some people explain the rule of "er", "ef", "ed" and "ez" that make the sound /e/ not by the fact that it is the combination of these letters that produce the sound, but by the fact that an "e" never takes an accent if:
- it is followed by the letters "r", "f", "d" or "z"
- these letters are the last one in the word.

Please watch the first video for examples of words for each case.

   Chapter 2 

1) "è". Once again, an "e" with an accent, but this time the accent is called "grave". It starts from the top left and goes down to the bottom right. 

School teachers in France often use a very nice image to show their pupils how to remember easily which accent is the "aigu", and which one is the "grave". I have found one example of it on the website (Thank you Orphée for allowing me to reproduce it here)

It says: "The rocket goes up, the arrow goes down". 
The only thing is you write your accent from the top right to the bottom left, and not the reverse, on the "é". However, the mnemonic is excellent. The second image is perfect.
Of course, you as a learner of French language will first have to remember the words "fusée" and "flèche" if you want to use this image as a mnemonic.

2) "ai" can make the sound /ɛ/

In some words, it is supposed to be pronounced /e/ but in the huge majority of words it is pronounced /ɛ/ (Note) 

Remark for people above level A1: 
You are also supposed to respect a difference of pronunciation in conjugation, between two past tenses at the first person (je = I) : 
- in a tense called the "passé simple" 
- and in another one called "imparfait". 
I will not enter into details for students A1.1 or A1 (and I suppose you are if you are reading this lesson), just understand that you would say: 
- "je chantai" (the verb means to sing), with the "ai" pronounced /e/ (passé simple)
- and "je chantais", with the "ai" before the final "s" pronounced 
/ɛ/ (imparfait) 
The spelling of these two past tenses is different only because there is an "s" at the end of the second one, but orally you would not be able to make any différence if you pronounced them the same way. Now, do French people actually make the difference when they pronounce those two past tenses, for example when they read a text? Not really.

3) In half a second you will recognize the combination of letters "et", which I have mentioned above, and which can also make the sound 

"Excuse me, Erica", you are going to say, "but how do I know when "et" makes the sound /e/, and when it makes the sound /ɛ/, then?" 

Well, it is very simple: "et" makes the sound /e/ in only one word: "et", a two-letter word that means "and". 
Actually, the huge majority of websites don't even mention "et" as a possibility to spell the sound /e/.

4) "ê". A third "e" with an accent on it. This accent looks like a little hat, as people in France say to school children, and it is called... take a deep breath... "circonflexe". 

cir    con    fle    xe

(Remark: Here, the syllable "fle" is pronounced with a /ɛ/, although there is no accent on it, as it is the rule with "e" followed by "x".)

The "circonflexe" accent tends to disappear nowadays because of the reform that aims at simplifying the spelling. For example, the word "boîte" (a box) can now officially be written "boite". Poor circonflexe accent! Moreover, it is not the only victim of this reform. (Note)

The accent circonflexe comes from ancient Greek and was added in French in the 16th century to replace an old "s". 
For example, tête (head) (la tête, feminine) was called "teste" in ancient French. 

This "s" can reappear in words belonging to the same family. 
"Fenêtre" (une fenêtre, feminine), which means "window", is the base for the formation of the verb "défenestrer" which means to throw out of the window. 
"Forêt" (une forêt, feminine), which means a forrest (Hey! It kept the "s" in English! Isn't it amazing?) is the base for "forestier" (= which is related to a forest), déforestation (= when the forest is cut and is disappearing because of that).

This is also why it is a shame to drop it, because the French language will lose part of the memory of its past if we do that.

"è" and "ê" are usually pronounced the same way, contrary to the "a" and "â" which are not pronounced the same. 

5) "ei". Funny this "i" after the "e", don't you think so? Well, the combination of these two letters makes the sound /ɛ/ sometimes. Same for "ay" and "ey"but these are rather rare, and most of the time come from foreign (English) words. 
You will see in the second video a funny example of one of these words of English origins, which in reality has older French origins! I lend you a word... Thanks, take it back in a few centuries.
You can also find "ay" in some names of towns or people. 

All these different ways of spelling the sounds /e/ and /ɛ/ are not used with the same frequency.

Many words contain several different spellings of the sound /e/ or /ɛ/, sometimes both sounds are in a single word. 


Un élève = a pupil. One "é" and one "è".
Préférer : to prefer. Two "é" and one "er".

6) "es". This one is not in the table because it refers to certain grammatical categories you certainly haven't studied yet if you are A1.1. You should have studied them when you achieve A1. It is not the subject of this lesson to study them so I will just mention and translate them. 

"es" pronounced /ɛ/ can be found in words like: 
- "mes", 
- "tes", 
- "ses", 
which mean: 
- "my" (plural, ie "my books", not "my book"), 
- your (also plural), 
- his/her (plural too). 

You also find it in "des", that means "the" (plural), or "some", "les", that also means "the". This will be the object of another lesson.

- Finally, in this lesson, I chose not to speak of the spelling "ë" (although I am doing it right now!), which is a fourth "e" with an accent, or rather, in this case, a sign, called "tréma". 

The "tréma" is composed of two little dots above the letter: ¨ 
The reason I originally did not want to talk about it is that sometimes this "ë" is pronounced /e/, sometimes it is pronounced /ɛ/ like in "Noël" (Christmas), and sometimes it is not pronounced at all. 

It is very rare anyway, but if you are curious (a very good quality) and you want the full list of words containing "ë", here it is. This link shows the number of words in what they call "official French", but when you switch to the "enlarged French" option, it gives you exactly the same number: 23. So, it IS very rare.



Here is a nice crossword puzzle to practive the words you have learnt in the videos. As this game is for level A1.1 or A1, the definitions are in English. You need to print this image to play the game. Please contact me for the solution.

And now the wordsearch! Solving the crossword above will help you with this second game. Words can be hidden horizontally, vertically or diagonally.

("Consigne" means "instructions".)


("Consigne" means "instructions". "Ecouter" means "to listen/listen")

Record yourself pronouncing words. 
Scan the QR code on your telephone or open this link directly.
Once you have finished, please click on "Envoyer". 
The website will then show you a link and a code to your archive. 
Keep them preciously to be able to check your exercise later,
as I will send you a personalized correction and/or a comment.

Reference of the lesson: SPVA1-ZT56 

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