There it was, a big red strike through my handwritten “el exámen” on my Spanish vocab test.
As a visual learner, I clearly remembered having seen that word with an accent mark before, I just knew it. Ah, here it was: “Los exámenes”. Certain there’d been a mistake while correcting my test, I went up to ask my teacher about it.
“There’s only an accent when it’s plural,” she told me. What?! How confusing! Not only do I have to remember which words have accents, but now you’re telling me it can change between when a noun is singular and plural?
I was frustrated, and Spanish accents continued to perplex me until a few years later when a glorious teacher finally revealed the amazing fact that Spanish accent marks follow rules! That was a marvelous day, a true a-ha moment.
First let’s cover our basics. Spanish accents (tildes) can only be written over the five vowels (a, e, i, o, u), and the accent is written from lower left to upper right: á, é, í, ó, ú.
Spanish stress rules
There are two basic rules in Spanish that tell us where to put the stress of a word. Stress is important, as it can sometimes be the only way to distinguish two words. It’s the difference between “insult” (IN-sult), as in “I couldn’t think of a good insult,” and “insult” (in-SULT), as in “She’s going to insult me now, I just know it.”
(If you’re new to the idea of stressing syllables, try this listening/speaking exercise to practice hearing the stress in various Spanish words.)
It’s only when these two rules are broken that we need to add an accent for emphasis. So let’s get on with the rules, shall we?
1. Words ending in a vowel, n, or s.
For words that end in a vowel, the letter “n,” or the letter “s,” the stress is on the next to last syllable.
todo (to-do) all/every
inteligente (in-te-li-gen-te) smart
el examen (e-xa-men) exam
joven (jo-ven) young
lunes (lu-nes) Monday
los calcetines (cal-ce-ti-nes) socks
2. Words ending in a consonant (not n, s)
For words that end in all other consonants (not “n” or “s”), the stress falls on the last syllable.
comer (co-mer) to eat
la ciudad (ciu-dad) the city
el profesor (pro-fe-sor) the professor/teacher
el animal (a-ni-mal) the animal
Madrid (Ma-drid) Madrid
And that’s it! Think you can remember those two rules?
(For those interested in Spanish syllable breaks, but not interested enough to learn all of the rules behind the splits just yet, you can use this handy tool to break any Spanish word into its correct syllables.)
When to add Spanish accent marks
We add accent marks to Spanish words when the stress breaks either of those two rules.
Let’s look at one example in detail first, the word from my vocabulary test: los exámenes. The word ends in an “s”, so according to the first rule, the stress should fall on the next to last syllable: ex-am-en-es. But it doesn’t.
Rather, the word keeps the same stress as its singular form, on what is now the third to last syllable, so we add an accent mark: exámenes (e-xa-me-nes). That’s it!
Examples of words that break rule #1
Here are some examples of Spanish words with accent marks that break rule #1. You’ll notice none of the stresses fall on the second to last syllable, as they normally would.
la canción (can-cion) song
también (tam-bien) also
los crímenes (cri-me-nes) crimes
jamás (ja-mas) never
inglés (in-gles) English
rápido (ra-pi-do) fast
está (es-ta) is, third person singular of the verb estar – to be
Examples of words that break rule #2
And here are examples of words that break the second rule. These are words that end in a consonant (not “n” or “s”), but whose accent does not fall on the final syllable.
el árbol (ar-bol) tree
la cárcel (car-cel) jail/prison
el césped (ces-ped) grass
débil (de-bil) weak
Spanish homonyms: Same pronunciation, different meaning
Accent marks are also used in Spanish to differentiate between words that are pronounced (and therefore spelled) the same but that have different meanings: homonyms.
Here are some examples of common Spanish homonyms:
de (preposition: of, from)
dé (third-person singular subjunctive form of dar – to give)
el (masculine article: the)
se (reflexive and indirect object pronoun)
sé (I know)
te (object: you)
tú (subject: you)
Accents on Spanish question words
Spanish accents are also found on all interrogative words when used in a question, indirect question or embedded question.
¿Qué? (What? / Which?)
¿Por qué? (Why?)
¿Cuánto? (How much/many?)
Regular questions are fairly basic and easy to spot, but let’s take a look at a few of these words in details, along with some examples of indirect and embedded questions.
Indirect and embedded questions carry accents
Whenever the word “cuánto” means “how much/many,” it carries an accent:
No sé cuántos hay. (I don’t know how many there are.)
When the word “cómo” translates to “how,” it carries an accent – no matter where it falls in the sentence. (Without the accent, “como” means “like” or “as”.)
No entiendo cómo lo hace. (I don’t understand how he does it.)
Likewise, when “qué” means an interrogative “what,” it must carry an accent.
No sé qué hacer. (I don’t know what to do.)
Question words used as pronouns do not have accents
When these words are not used in a question or indirect question, but rather as a pronoun, there is no accent mark. Here are three example sentences of this situation:
El chico que dijo eso es mentiroso. (The boy who said that is a liar.)
Es el parque donde conocí a tu madre. (It’s the park where I met your mother.)
No trabajo cuando estoy enferma. (I don’t work when I’m sick.)
Finally, Spanish accents are used in feminine and masculine demonstrative pronouns (this one, that one) to differentiate them from the demonstrative adjectives (this –, that –), which are identical except that they don’t carry an accent mark.*
Remember, pronouns take the place of a noun, while adjectives describe nouns. The example sentences below the following lists of pronouns will help clarify this distinction if you’re a bit rusty on grammar terminology.
aquél (that over there)
aquéllos (those over there)
aquélla (that over there)
aquéllas (those over there)
aquello (that over there)
No quiero comprar este coche; mi novia prefiere ése.
(I don’t want to buy this car; my girlfriend prefers that one.)
The first “este“, without an accent, is an adjective describing “coche“: Which car? That car. The “ése” at the end of the sentence is a demonstrative pronoun, “that one,” taking the place of the car. Again, it’s these demonstrative pronouns that carry the accent marks (though not the neuter pronouns: esto, eso, aquello.)
Se me olvidó estudiar ayer. Por eso estoy nerviosa para el examen.
(I forgot to study yesterday. Because of this, I’m nervous for the exam).
Este libro es tan interesante como ése.
(This book is as interesting as that one.)
Soy editora de estas revistas, pero no de aquéllas.
(I’m an editor of these magazines, but not those over there.)
* Officially, the Real Academia Española revised the spelling rules in 1959, making the written accent on demonstrative pronouns unnecessary except in cases with ambiguity. However, most grammar sources and many publications (including the Madrid-based newspaper El País) still follow the old format and use the accented pronouns in all instances, which is why it’s included here.
How to type Spanish accent marks
Writing accent marks is easy enough, but how do you type them?
Whether you use a PC or a Mac, the simplest way is to change your keyboard settings to “US – International”.
Mac: How to change keyboard settings
For Mac users, go into your system preferences and select “Keyboard.” Then click “Input Sources” at the menu across the top. If “US – International” is not in your current list, click the + sign, select “US – International” and then click “Add.”
I recommend selecting the checkbox next to “Show input menu in menu bar.” This will add a small icon to the menu bar across the top of the screen (by the date and time). You can click this icon to quickly change between keyboards any time, without going into your system preferences.
PC: How to change keyboard settings
If you’re using a PC, head to your start menu and type “intl.cpl” into the search field. Open the result, and click on the third tab, “Keyboards and Languages.” Next click “Change Keyboards,” then the “Add…” button, select “United States – International” and finally click “OK.”
If you’ll be using the international keyboard a lot, select it as your default keyboard from the drop down menu while the keyboard menu is still open. You can also have a small keyboard icon stay on the menu bar at the bottom of the screen. From here you can quickly change between keyboards, without going into keyboard settings.
Typing Spanish accents with the international keyboard
To type a Spanish accent over a vowel, simply press the quotation key (“/ ‘) that’s next to the return key, and then the vowel. It’s really easy!
If you want to accent a capital letter, just press the quotation key before you type the capital vowel as you normally would, holding down the shift key and then typing the letter.
If you want a single or double quotation mark before an unaccented vowel, press the quotation key and then the space bar, and it will leave your vowel alone.
The ñ is also simple to type with the international keyboard. Press shift, followed by the (~/`) key located to the left of “1/!” and you’ll see a floating tilde: ˜. You can let go of the keys right away, and then type “n” to produce a wonderful ñ.
Type Spanish accents with a website
If you aren’t used to typing on a keyboard and you feel confused, you can always use this website with buttons for each accent to type in Spanish. Type in the field, click the correct button when you need an accent, and when you’re finished, copy and paste the text to wherever you need it.
Now you’re ready to both write and type Spanish accents correctly whenever you may need them – but remember, never on the word “examen”!
Rebecca Thering is a freelance writer and editor who has lived abroad teaching ESL in Spain and South Korea. Valuing education and things that aren’t things, she inspires and helps others by writing about her experiences abroad, cultural insights and self-improvement pursuits at her personal blog, Rebe With a Clause.
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