Should the use of macrons be encouraged, discouraged or just accepted?

Picking an opponent and proponent at random, Cheryl Lowe says:

Macrons in most texts are too dark and create a distracting clutter on a Latin page, especially a page of connected text. [...] The second reason we don’t include macrons is because of their limited usefulness. [...] The reality is that the pronunciation of a vowel in a Latin word is determined as much by the consonants around it and whether the syllable is accented as it is by whether it is long or short.

While Richard LaFleur argues that macrons should be taught to all students:

I can't appeal strongly enough for trying our utmost, in teaching or learning ANY language, to reproduce as faithfully as possible the aural/oral experience of that language; but this is particularly important for Latin, whose literature was intended for a listening audience and whose writers, especially the poets, were often at pains to manipulate vowel (and other) sounds for artistic effect through the use of such devices as assonance and onomatopoeia.

4 Answers 4


I'd say they should be accepted, but certainly not encouraged or discouraged. That type of guideline makes some sense for a classroom; it doesn't make sense for an international site like this. Latin is a language that can and has been written in multiple ways; it seems insular to me to insist that everyone use only one.

I'd also extend this to the use of the circumflex to disambiguate forms like rosa (nom.) and rosâ (abl.), the use of accent marks on stressed syllables (as in Cheryl Lowe's programs), and the choice between "j" and "i" and between "v" and "u."

This is what I see this as meaning in practice:

  • users should not edit other users' posts to "correct" these things one way or the other, just as on ELU it's not valid to edit someone's post to change the spelling from American to British conventions or uice uersa. If people feel that the spelling used in a post is particularly distracting, inappropriate or confusing, they can leave a comment to notify the poster of this, or to suggest an alternative system.
  • All users must decide for themselves how much they value making their posts "readable," and how best to accomplish it.
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    I was soooo tempted to edit that into vice versâ...
    – Cerberus Mod
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 3:09

On the one hand, the clutter is undeniable; on the other, they can be helpful to readers and give writers satisfaction. Whenever two opposing points of view appear somewhat reasonable, it is best not to make any policy whatsover. I suggest that we have no official policy regarding macra.

  • 3
    This is the sanest answer. Whatever policy we have, or whatever we encourage, doesn't really matter. People are going to do whatever looks best to them.
    – user11
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 23:48
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    This is probably the best approach. The only issue I see is the potential for edit wars when a user edits out macrons for readability.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 23:51
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    @Lilienthal That's a moderation issue that is fairly easy to deal with. I wouldn't expect it to be too large an issue.
    – user11
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 23:52
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    @Lilienthal: It would be a very strange user to edit out the macra from a text that the poster painstakingly added! By the way, I will not use them myself and I think they look weird in a running text.
    – Cerberus Mod
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 23:55
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    @Cerberus Certainly a very dedicated one, though removing them is easy enough with some regex or find/replace rules. I suppose those edits can just be reverted for conflicting with author intent even if I agree that long prose with macrons looks off-putting.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 0:02
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    @Lilienthal: Yeah, I think we'll be able to roll back and talk to those users to sort it out.
    – Cerberus Mod
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 0:04

I'd be on the side of accepting macrons, if not encouraging them.

As a student who really isn't very good at reading and writing Latin, macrons help a great deal. I recognize words mostly by pronouncing them in my head, and macrons help with that.

Also, there are cases where a word is distinguished from other words only by its macron. Such cases are clear cut for the experts here, but we're not an expert-only site. In fact, many of our users will probably be beginners and students.

Let's keep them in mind. At the very least call it the author's choice, at best encourage their use.


I would argue that use of macrons should be discouraged unless they offer a real benefit to the reader.

I see two major cases where they should be used:

  • when they affect word meaning: as Richard LaFleur says in his article: "you wouldn't want to confuse “liber” with “līber” (a “book” with a “free man”) or “venit” with “vēnit”, any more than you would want to confuse your cap with your cape"
  • when the meter or rhythm of the source text is important, such as with classical verse in dactylic hexameter

Continuous use of macrons just clutters the text for little to no added benefit. Compare these two all-Latin questions:

Ignis solis propinqui

Linguā Latīnā Per Sē Illūstrāta Ioānnis Ørbergī paginā 207 scrīptum est:

"Ignis sōlis propinquī ceram, quā pennae iūnctae et fīxae erant, mollīvit et pennās ussit."

Cur nōn "propinquus" dīcit?

Dies unus — non primus

Genese 1:5 Hieronymus traduxit:

"Appellavitque lucem Diem, et tenebras Noctem: factumque est vespere et mane, dies unus."

Cur "unus", non "primus"? Nonne numerum ordinalem significat? Nonne "unus" est cardinalis?

I would argue that the second question is much easier on the eyes and invites careful reading and translating, while the former looks like it's trying too hard.

  • 5
    BTW, I used the macrons in the former question because they're in the original text, and the question is very much a beginner's question. As a beginner, I very much appreciated the macrons. I dropped them from the latter question, because it's a little more advanced—and to contrast the two approaches! And then I found myself wondering if the first vowel in mane is short or long, so I looked it up…
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 4:02

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