Spanish Spelling Simplified: How to Overcome These 8 Common Mix-ups
With Spanish spelling, generally speaking, what you hear is what you get.
Most letters in Spanish only make one or two sounds and spelling actually follows rules with very few exceptions.
(If needed, click here to learn the entire Spanish alphabet and each letter’s pronunciation.)
That said, there are some common Spanish spelling mistakes that trip up speakers of all levels, from absolute beginners to native speakers.
Read on to learn how to avoid them.
- 1. R and RR
- 2. Y and LL
- 3. Cs, Zs and Ss
- 4. B and V
- 5. Tildes in Ñ
- 6. The Silent H
- 7. Accent Marks
- 8. Gui and Gue
1. R and RR
In Spanish, the letter r sounds far different than the English equivalent. In fact, the Spanish r sound can be one of the most difficult for English-speaking learners to master—and that’s probably because there are two r sounds:
R suave (soft r). It sounds sort of like a very quick English “d” sound, made by flicking the tongue against the roof of the mouth. You can hear it in words like acabar (to finish), orden (order), and arte (art).
An r suave sound always corresponds to a single r.
R fuerte (strong r). This is the sound that is commonly known as the rolled r. It sounds like a trill and it is made by pushing air out of the mouth while lightly pressing the tongue against the roof of the mouth. You can hear it in words like rincón (corner), arriba (up), and alrededor (around).
Many people assume that when they hear an r fuerte it means a word has a double r (rr) but this is not always the case. Here are some rules to keep in mind:
- You will never find a double r at the beginning or end of a word. A single r at the beginning of a word makes the r fuerte (rolled r) sound.
- You will never find a double r after a consonant. However, a single r will make an r fuerte sound after the consonants l, n or s. (For example, in the word enriquecer)
- If you add a prefix to the beginning of a word that starts with r, you must double the r in order to maintain the r fuerte.
For example, the first r in the word retrato (portrait) makes an r fuerte sound. To say “self-portrait,” we must add the prefix auto. But in the word autoretrato, the r would make a soft sound. In order to maintain the correct pronunciation of the word, we must add a second r to form the word autorretrato. Some other examples are the words antirrobo (anti-theft) and intrarregional (intraregional).
2. Y and LL
The letter y and the double l (ll) are generally pronounced the same as one another.
However, depending on which region you are in, they can be pronounced distinctly:
- Like an English “y” in the word “yes”
- Like an English “j” in the name “Jessica”
- They even make a “sh” sound like in the English word “shoe” in Argentina and Uruguay
One common error is mixing up the words haya (the subjunctive conjugation of the verb haber, to have), allá (there) and halla (to discover or locate). In cases like this, context is key to figuring out which word to use.
Some common double-l words are:
Llamar (verb) — To call
Llover (verb) — To rain
Llegar (verb) — To arrive
Ella (pronoun) — She
Ello (pronoun) — It
Some common words with y are:
Ayer (noun) — Yesterday
Mayoría (noun) — Majority
Ayudar (verb) — To help
Proyecto (noun) — Project
Yendo (verb) — Going
3. Cs, Zs and Ss
The Spanish letter c sounds different depending on which continent you happen to be speaking Spanish.
In Latin American Spanish, as in English, a c can make two sounds:
- A hard c, like in the English word “cake” or the Spanish word acabar.
- A soft c, like in the English word “peace” or the Spanish word hacer.
It will probably not surprise you at this point in the article to learn that there are very simple rules dictating whether a Spanish c makes a hard or soft sound. All you have to do is look at the following letter: if it’s an e or an i, the c makes a soft s sound. Otherwise, it makes a hard sound.
In European Spanish, you don’t have to worry about mixing up c’s and s’s, because the two letters make totally different sounds! The s sounds like it does in English, but the c resembles the “th” at the end of the English word “tooth.”
Easy, right? Sure, until you throw in the z, which in Spain makes that same th sound.
When in Spain, if you hear a th sound followed by an e or an i, the word might be spelled with a c or z. You just have to memorize the difference. But if the following sound is anything else, it must be a z.
4. B and V
In English, the letters b and v make similar but distinct sounds. In Spanish, they sound exactly the same—a soft sound somewhere in between the English b and the English v.
Because the letters sound the same, you’ll simply have to pay special attention to words with b and v sounds and learn which words are spelled with which letter. Sometimes, all you need to do to figure out which letter to use is to look at the context.
One common mistake that I see all the time—even among my native-Spanish-speaking students—is the difference between haber (to be/have) and a ver (a colloquial phrase meaning “can I see that?”). Although these two words are pronounced exactly the same, context can clear up any misunderstandings about which word is necessary.
5. Tildes in Ñ
A Spanish n makes the same sound as the corresponding English letter. But when you add a tilde—the fancy word for that little squiggly line—you get an entirely different letter with an entirely different sound.
The ñ is makes a sound more like the combination “ny” in the word “unyielding” or the “ni” in the word “onion.”
It’s worth your while to learn the difference between the two sounds: for example, you wouldn’t want to try to tell someone tengo treinta años (I’m 30 years old) and instead tell them tengo treinta anos, which means something entirely different (and somewhat disgusting).
Some of the most common words you’ll encounter with an ñ are:
Español — Spanish
Mañana — Morning/tomorrow
Niño/a — Boy/girl
Cumpleaños — Birthday
Baño — Bathroom
Año — Year
Enseñar — To teach
One of the biggest barriers to correct spelling when it comes to the ñ is learning how to make it on an English keyboard, but we’ve fixed that for you!
6. The Silent H
Knowing when to use—or not use—the Spanish silent h is something that even native speakers struggle with. So, how can you be expected to learn the difference?
Unfortunately, once again this one is all about memorization. Particularly, be on the lookout for verbs conjugated in the past perfect or pluperfect; these conjugations use the auxiliary verb haber, which begins with a silent h. For example:
Esta noche he quedado para cenar con dos amigos. (Tonight I’ve made plans to have dinner with two friends.)
Me alegro que lo hayas pasado bien. (I’m happy that you had a good time.)
Si hubieras dicho algo, habría cambiado todo. (If you had said something, it would have changed everything.)
Of course, haber is far from the only Spanish word that begins with a silent h, although it is one of the most common. Here are some more:
Hacer (verb) — To do, to make
Hablar (verb) — To speak
Hasta (prep.) — Until
Hoy (noun) — Today
Hermano/a (noun) — Brother/sister
Hijo/a (noun) — Son/daughter
Hambre (noun) — Hunger
Hora (noun) — Hour, time
Remember that if you do hear an h-sound in Spanish, you are actually dealing with either a g or a j. These two letters both make a guttural h sound, but g only makes this sound before an e or an i. For example, in the words fijar (to fix/set), orejas (ears) or digestión (digestion).
7. Accent Marks
To us English speakers, forgetting an accent mark here and there might not seem like such a big deal. But in Spanish, leaving off an accent mark can completely change the pronunciation—and meaning—of a word. And the rules are so regular and simple, it’s silly to not learn them.
- In most words, the stress is on the second-to-last syllable. For example, this is the case for mochila (backpack), naranja (orange), libro (book) and so on.
- With words that end in consonants other than n and s, you must stress the last syllable of the word. For example abrir (to open), ajedrez (chess), aprendiz (apprentice), et cetera.
- If you hear a word that strays from this pattern, you need to put an accent mark. First, listen for the stressed syllable, and then place the accent mark above that syllable’s vowel. For example, words like móvil (mobile), filosofía (philosophy), and árbol (tree).
8. Gui and Gue
As stated above, the letter g followed by an e or an i in Spanish makes a sound like a guttural h, such as in the words fingir (to pretend) or gente (people). Here are some guidelines for spelling with the letter g:
- If you hear a word with an English-sounding g sound followed by an e or i sound, you must insert a silent u between the g and the vowel.
This frequently happens in –ar verb conjugations in order to maintain regular pronunciation patterns. For example, the verb llegar (to arrive) conjugated in the preterit tense yo form becomes llegué (I arrived).
This silent u also appears in words like guindilla (pickle), hamburguesa (hamburger), and guerra (war).
- Some Spanish words contain the syllable gue or gui, but the u isn’t silent! Instead, it sounds like an English w.
Spanish spelling is nowhere near as complex as English spelling, but it does have a few tricks and complications.
It’s also a good idea to get familiar with how everything sounds. Depending on your learning level, you could dive into a podcast or watch a telenovela (soap opera). Any kind of authentic audio content, preferably with text, will help you differentiate between the sounds.
A language learning program like FluentU could also be helpful, as its Spanish media clips come with transcriptions and interactive subtitles, so you can compare tricky spelling to the spoken language in real-time.
Taking the time to learn Spanish spelling will help you skyrocket your Spanish writing abilities—a useful skill for everything from term papers to WhatsApp messages.