When I started learning Spanish back in 2008, I ignored accent marks when they appeared. I didn’t know what they meant, and I didn’t know how to use them correctly. I guess I just assumed that my word processor would help me automatically place them when I typed in Spanish and that I didn’t need them to fully understand Spanish.
It turned out that I couldn’t have been more wrong, as this only hindered my learning. The good news is that they’re easier to learn than they seem! Understanding Spanish accent marks enables you to appreciate one of the many beautiful aspects of Spanish that makes it unique!
Why You Should Learn Spanish Accent Marks
If you understand Spanish accents, you’ll not only impress native speakers, but you’ll also know how to pronounce words precisely, and you won’t be confused when you come across a written word with an accent.
An accent mark shows you exactly how a word is supposed to be pronounced, and often times, it even shows you what that word means. It makes Spanish pronunciation and comprehension that much easier.
For pronunciation, if a word does not contain an accent mark, it follows the simple rules below (Rules 2 and 3). If a word DOES contain an accent mark, that mark tells us exactly which letter to put a stress on when we say it aloud.
For comprehension, an accent mark can tell us the differences between two words that sound the same but are spelled differently. (See the “homonyms” chart below).
Now, let’s establish some simple rules…
4 Rules for Spanish Accent Marks
Spanish accents are called “tildes” in Spanish. In English, a “tilde” refers to the “mustache” that goes over the “n” (ñ), and all other marks are called “accent marks.” However in Spanish, a “tilde” is used for both accent marks and tildes.
Accent marks are only used with five vowels (a, e, i, o, u), and they’re written from lower left to upper right on top:
á, é, í, ó, ú
When words end in a vowel, “n,” or “s,” and don’t contain an accent mark, the stress falls on the second to last syllable. Words with a stress on the second to last syllable are called “palabras llanas.”
• gente (gen-te) – people – (stress the first “e”)
• bonito (bon-i-to) – pretty – (stress the “i”)
• ponen (pon-en) – they put – (stress the “o”)
• hablas (hab-las) – you talk – (stress the first “a”)
When words end in a consonant that isn’t “n” or “s” and the words don’t contain an accent mark, the stress falls on the last syllable. Words with a stress on the last syllable are called “palabras agudas.”
• la capital (cap-i-tal) – the capitol – (stress the second “a”)
• tomar (tom-ar) – to take – (stress the “a”)
• la edad (e-dad) – age – (stress the “a”)
• el pudor (pu-dor) – embarrassment – (stress the “o”)
Add accent marks when the word’s stress doesn’t follow Rule #2 or #3, meaning the stress doesn’t lie where it does normally. This means that when we pronounce words with an accent mark, we put the stress on the letter that is accented instead of basing our pronunciation solely on the last letter of the word.
Sometimes, the accent makes them “palabras llanas” or “palabras agudas.” Sometimes, the accent also makes words “palabras esdrújulas,” a word where the stress falls on the third from the last syllable.
• el corazón (cor-a-zón) – heart – (Rule #2 would say stress the a, but instead, the accent mark shows you to stress the second “o.”)
• los jóvenes (jó-ven-es) – young people – (Rule #2 would say stress the e, but instead, the accent mark shows you to stress the “o.”)
• las águilas (ág-uil-as) – eagles – (Rule #3 would say stress the u, but instead, the accent mark shows you to stress the first “a.”)
• fácil (fá-cil) – easy – (Rule #3 would say stress the i, but instead, the accent mark shows you to stress the “a.”)
Accent marks are also used in Spanish with direct or indirect question words:
Lastly, what about homonyms in Spanish? Spanish also utilizes accent marks to distinguish between homonyms, words with the same pronunciation but that have different meanings. For example:
The above vocabulary will likely take some practice… but eventually it’ll become like second nature!
When it comes to writing an essay or paper in Spanish, there are a couple different ways to make sure you’re adding accents properly. Many writers choose to use keyboard shortcuts, like the ones you’ll see here. Keep in mind that the commands will be different from Macs to PCs.
An even better option is to download a word processor like Mellel that has multilingual functionality. Mellel allows you to write easily and effectively in the language of your choice, with over 200 different options available.
Still need help knowing when and where to use Spanish accent marks? Find a Spanish teacher online, or near you, for additional one-on-one tutoring!