Accents in Spanish: Marks & Rules

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

If you are confused about when to put accents on Spanish words, this lesson clarifies the rules for you. Also, you learn about some misconceptions about specific marks that are part of the Spanish language.

Stress on Syllables

Though you feel stress about where to put accents in Spanish words, you can relax because it's actually all about stress! Let's think of a couple of words in English.

For example, when you say the word 'physics', which sounds like 'FIZZ-icks', the stress, or emphasis, is on the second to last syllable, which is 'phy'. Now, try saying the same word with the stress on 'sics' instead. 'fizz-ICKS'. Sounds strange, right?

Similarly, when you say the word 'Japanese', the stress is on the last syllable, which is '-nese'. 'Jah-pa-NEEZ'. Now, try saying the same word with the stress on 'Ja-' instead. It sounds totally different, doesn't it?

Where a word in Spanish is stressed determines if an accent mark is needed. First, let's learn about marks.

Marks in Spanish

The good news is that there is only one type of accent mark in Spanish. The accent mark is la tilde (pronounced: lah teel-deh) and it only goes over any of the five vowels to look like this:

á é í ó ú

Another mark you don't see very often appears over the letter u and it looks like ü. The two dots on top of the u are known as diéresis (pronounced: dee-eh-reh-sees). They change the appearance and sound of the syllables gue and gui (pronounced: gueh and gueeh) into güe and güi (pronounced: gweh and gooee).

There is no rule for when to put this mark. It simply appears in a few words you must learn by heart. Examples include but are not limited to:

  • pingüino (penguin, pronounced: peen-gooee-noh),
  • bilingüe (bilingual, pronounced: bee-leen-gweh),
  • vergüenza (shame, pronounced: beh-gwehn-sah).

Note: A very common misconception is that the letter ñ (pronounced: eh-nye) is a combination of the letter 'n' with a mark on top. Actually, ñ is an independent letter, the 15th in the Spanish alphabet. It appears in words like niño (boy, pronounced: nee-nyoh), enseñar (to teach, pronounced: ehn-seh-nyar), and pequeño (small, pronounced: peh-keh-nyo).

Time to learn some rules.

Rules on When to Put La Tilde

As a principle, all words have a syllable with the most stress but not all show a tilde.

  • When the stress is not represented through a tilde it is an acento prosódico, or prosodic accent, which means it is only pronounced, not written.
  • If the stressed syllable is represented through a tilde it is an acento ortográfico', or orthographic accent, which means it is spelled through a mark.

The acento ortográfico, or tilde, follows four basic rules:

Last Syllable

When a word has the stress on its last syllable, the word is a palabra aguda (acute word). This type of word has a tilde on the last syllable if it ends in n, s, or a vowel. For example:

  • corazón (heart, pronounced: koh-rah-SOHN)
  • cortés (corteous, pronounced: kohr-TEHS)
  • mamá (mom, pronounced: mah-MAH)
  • bebé (baby, pronounced: beh-BEH)
  • abrí(I opened, pronounced: ah-BREEH)
  • tomó (he/she took, pronounced: toh-MOH)
  • bambú (bamboo, pronounced: bahm-BOO)

Conversely, some words of this type do not have a tilde because they do not end in the letters n, s, or a vowel.

  • usual (usual, pronounced: ooh-SOOAHL)
  • beber (to drink, pronounced: beh-BEHR)
  • integridad (integrity, pronounced: een-teh-gree-DAD)

Second to Last Syllable

When a word has the stress on its second to last syllable, the word is a palabra grave. This type of word has a tilde on the second to last syllable if it ends in any consonant, except n or s, or a vowel. For example:

  • árbol (tree, pronounced: AHR-bohl)
  • azúcar (sugar, pronounced: ah-SOO-kahr)
  • césped (grass, pronounced: SEHS-ped)

Conversely, let's look at some words of this type (have the stress in the second to last syllable) that do not have a tilde because they end in the letters n, s, or a vowel.

  • antes (before, pronounced: AHN-tehs)
  • examen (exam, pronounced: ekh-SAH-mehn)
  • elefante (elephant, pronounced: eh-leh-FAHN-teh)

However, there is an exception. When the word ends in ía and the stress in on the letter i, this stress separates it from the vowel a. In this case, the letter i does have an accent despite the accent on the second to last syllable and ending in a vowel. Such is the case with words like:

  • biología (biology, pronounced: bee-oh-lo-HEE-ah)
  • María (Mary, pronounced: mah-REE-ah)
  • agonía (agony, pronounced: ah-goh-NEE-ah)

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