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Spanish Accent Rules

There it was: a big, red strike through my handwritten answer “el exámen” on my Spanish vocab test.

“There’s only an accent when it’s plural,” my teacher told me.

I was frustrated, and Spanish accents continued to perplex me until a few years later when I finally learned that accent marks in Spanish follow rules.

So in this post, we’ll go over everything you need to know about Spanish accent rules.

Contents

Spanish Stress Rules

Two basic rules in Spanish 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.”

The two rules are simple:

1. For words ending in a vowel, n or s, spoken stress is on the second-to-last syllable. For example:

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Todo

Inteligente

Examen

Joven

2. For words that end in all other consonants (not or s), the stress falls on the last syllable. For example:

Comer

Ciudad

Profesor

Madrid

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If you’re new to stressing syllables, try this listening/speaking exercise to practice hearing the stress in various Spanish words.

How to Use the Spanish Acute Accent Mark

The acute accent mark in Spanish is a slanted line that appears above vowels, and is used to indicate stress or emphasis in a word. The presence of an acute accent mark on a vowel generally highlights the syllable that is stressed.

Used on words that break the spoken stress rules

Here are some examples of Spanish words with accent marks that break the rule that for words ending in a vowel, “n” or “s”, spoken stress is on the second-to-last syllable. You’ll notice none of the stresses fall on the second to last syllable, as they normally would.

La canción — song

También — also

Los crímenes — crimes

Jamás — never

Inglés — English

Rápido — fast

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Es — he/she/it is

And here are examples of words that break the rule that for words that end consonants that aren’t “n” or “s”, the stress falls on the last syllable. These are words that end in a consonant (not “n” or “s”), but whose accent does not fall on the final syllable.

El árbol — tree

La cárcel — jail/prison

El césped — grass

Débil — weak

Used to differentiate between homonyms

Accent marks in Spanish are also used 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 — of, from
Dé   — give (third-person singular subjunctive form of dar)

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El —  the (masculine article)
Él — he

Mas — but
Más — more

Se — (reflexive and indirect object pronoun)
Sé — I know

Si — if
Sí — yes

Te — you (object)
Té — tea

Tu — your
Tú — you (subject)

Used on question words

Spanish accents are also found on all interrogative words when used in a question, indirect question or embedded question.

¿Quién? — who?

¿Qué? — what? / which?

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¿Dónde? — where?

¿Cuándo? — when?

¿Por qué? — why?

¿Cómo? — how?

¿Cuál? — which?

¿Cuánto? — how much?

¿Cuántos? — how many?

Regular questions are fairly basic and easy to spot, but let’s take a look at a few of these words in detail, along with some examples of indirect and embedded questions.

Indirect and embedded questions carry accents

Whenever “cuánto(s)” means “how much/many,” it carries an accent:

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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.

How to Use the Spanish Diaeresis

The diaeresis consists of two dots placed over a vowel. In Spanish, it can only be placed over the letter “u.”

Used to pronounce the letter “u” in syllables gue, gui

Sometimes the letter “u” can be silent! This happens when the vowel is inside syllables que, qui, gue, or gui, where only the second vowel is pronounced. For instance:

Arquero — archer

Mezquino — stingy

Hoguera — bonfire

Guiño — wink

Some words do need the “u” to have a sound, though, so to “break the silence” and ensure the “u” is pronounced distinctly, the diaeresis is added:

Agüero — omen

Pingüino — penguin

Just to be clear: gue and gui are the only syllables where you could find a diaeresis, as the “u” is always pronounced in every other letter combination. As for qüe and qüi—don’t worry, there are no words with such syllables, so you’ll never see a “ü” after a “q”!

Acuerdo   — agreement

Babuino   — baboon

If you want to see how the Spanish diaeresis accent mark, as well as the rest of the above accent marks, affect pronunciation, you could try using a language learning program such as FluentU.

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How to Use the Spanish Tilde

The tilde (~) is not techincally considered a sign or accent in Spanish, but an inherent stroke in the letter ñ, in the same way we use a dot in an “i” or a line in a “t.”

Used to indicate the ñ sound

The letter “ñ” in a Spanish word represents a sound similar to the “ny” sound in the English word “canyon.”

For example, in the word  “niño” (child), the tilde accent mark over the “n” changes the pronunciation from a regular “n” sound to the nasalized “ñ” sound.

Used to distinguish similar words

Like the acute accent mark, the tilde accent mark also serves the purpose of distinguishing words that would otherwise be homophones. In Spanish, the meaning of words can change entirely based on the presence or absence of the tilde accent mark.

For example:

Año — year
Ano — anus

or

Señal — sign or signal
Senal — flourish (as in a decoration)

How to Type Spanish Accent Marks

Writing accent marks is easy enough, but how do you type them? Fortunately, learning to use keyboard shortcuts is a relatively simple process.

To find out how to type all of the above accent marks on your device, check out this easy guide:

Practice typing Spanish accents and watch your Spanish writing improve as a whole!

 

Now you’re ready to use Spanish accents correctly whenever you need them. But remember, never on the word examen!

And One More Thing…

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