When and How to Use Accent Marks in Spanish
In Spanish, the spelling of two words may look exactly the same except for one tiny detail: an accent mark. Amazingly, this small feature will completely change the meaning of the word!
For example, if you were to say el papa (the pope), we would know that you are talking about the pope. In turn, if you were to say el papá (the father) with an emphasis on the last á, you would actually be referring to the dad.
As you can see, it is extremely important to understand when to use Spanish accent marks. Otherwise, you might accidentally write the wrong word and completely miscommunicate your idea.
In this article, we will discuss:
- The difference between an accent and an accent mark
- Rules of accentuation
What is the Difference Between an Accent and an Accent Mark
In general, all words (in all languages) have accents, which can be defined as the stress given to a single syllable of a given word.
For example, in English, we have the nouns progress, object, rebel, record…whose stress falls in the first syllable, but on the other hand, we have the verbs progress, object, rebel, record, whose stress falls in the last syllable.
How do we know in English where the stress will be placed? Obviously by context, right?
In Spanish, however, we have a way to recognize where to place the stress, and it is by means of graphic accents, accent marks, or tilde.
Be aware that the name tilde is also given to the little trace written above the n to build the ñ, or below the c to build the ç, a letter which doesn’t exist in Spanish today but is present in many other Romance languages.
Spanish Rules of Accentuation
These rules will be helpful for two reasons:
- The first time you see a word, you will be able to pronounce it, placing the stress on the right syllable.
- When you hear a word, you will be able to write it in the correct form, because you already know where to place the stress.
According to where the stress is placed in the word, Spanish words are classified as follows:
The stress is placed on the last syllable of the word.
Examples: Nación, nacional.
Both are examples of agudas words, but one of them carries a graphic accent and the other one does not.
The stress falls on the next to last syllable.
Examples: Casa, lápiz.
Both are examples of llanas words, but one of them carries a graphic accent and the other one does not.
The stress falls on the third to last syllable or before (for longer words the stress may fall on the fourth, fifth, etc. syllable from the last).
Examples: Sábado, América, música.
Keeping that in mind, we have the following rules of accentuation:
Spanish Accent Rules
When a word is aguda, a graphic accent is placed on the vowel only when the word ends in n, s, or a vowel:
Ratón, jamás, colibrí (here the stress falls on the last syllable and the word ends in n, s, or vowel, so a graphic accent is needed).
Cantar, mujer, parasol (here the stress falls on the last syllable but the word does not end in an n, s, or vowel, so no graphic accent is needed).
When the word is llana, the graphic accent is placed on the vowel of the stressed syllable only when the word does not end in n, s, or vowel:
Ámbar, fácil, cáliz, árbol (here the stress falls on the next to last syllable and the word does not end in n, s or vowel, so a graphic accent is needed).
Fruta, antes, orden (here the stress falls on the next to last syllable and the word ends in n, s, or vowel, so no graphic accent is needed).
When the word is esdrújula, a graphic accent is always used.
Tips to Keep in Mind
- It may seem simple, but knowing when a word is aguda or llana may be challenging, as the separation of syllables is not always so clear.
- There are also diphthongs (syllables with two vowels), triphthongs (syllables with three vowels), and hiatus (words that have two or more vowels together but do not belong to the same syllable).
- Diacritic graphic accent (Tilde diacrítica) is the one that is not governed by the above rules and it is used to distinguish words that have the same form but different meanings:
Diacritic Graphic Accents Are Used to Distinguish between Common Spanish Homonyms
|Spanish Homonym without accent||Spanish Homonym with accent|
Este libro es de mi madre.
“This book is from my mother.”
|dé||Imperative of dar: |
Dé recuerdos a su hija de mi parte.
“Give my regards to your daughter. “
El coche está sucio.
“The car is dirty.”
|él||Personal pronoun: |
Él se llama Juan.
“His name is Juan.”
Es bonito, MAS es muy caro.
“It’s nice, BUT it’s very expensive.”
Alicia es MÁS alta que María.
“Alicia is taller (more tall) than Maria.”
Andrés es mi amigo.
“Andres is my friend.”
|mí||Personal pronoun: |
Dámelo a mí.
“Give it to me.”
Se lo dije un montón de veces.
“I told him a bunch of times.”
|sé||Form of verbs ser o saber: |
Sé honesto contigo mismo.
“Be honest with yourself.”
Yo sé qué te pasa.
“I know what’s wrong with you.”
Si mientes, lo sabré.
“If you lie, I’ll know.”
“Yes, thank you.”
|te||Personal pronoun: Te quiero.|
“I love you.”
¿Quieres beber un té?
“Do you want to drink some tea?”
|tu||Possessive: Tengo tu libro.|
“I have your book.”
|tú||Personal pronoun: |
Tú llegaste el primero.
“You arrived first.”
This is something that’s sometimes even hard for native Spanish speakers. Don’t panic, though. With consistency and practice, these rules will soon become second nature!
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