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In this letter, we show that normal-incidence spectroscopic ellipsometry can be used for high-accuracy topography measurements on surface relief gratings. We present both experimental and theoretical results which show that spectroscopic ellipsometry or reflectance-difference spectroscopy at near-normal incidence coupled with vector diffraction theory for data analysis is capable of high-accuracy critical dimension (CD), feature height, and sidewall angle measurements in the extreme submicron regime. Quantitative comparisons of optical and cross-sectional scanning electron microscopy (SEM) topography measurements from a number of 350 nm line/space reactive-ion-etched Si gratings demonstrate the strong potential for in situ etching monitoring. This technique can be used for both ex situ and in situ applications and has the potential to replace the use of CD-SEM measurements in some applications. © 2001 American Institute of Physics.