A GUIDE TO ACCENT MARKS IN SPANISH

   
An expanded version of this excellent explanation is now available in a print or Kindle version with more details, more examples and progressive exercises. by
Tom Mathews, Ph.D.
http://weber.edu/tmathews 
Weber State University
© October 1996
Revised November 2010
The rules presented here reflect the changes made by the twenty-two national Academias de la Lengua Española in Guadalajara, Mexico, on November 28, 2010.

A Complete Guide to Written Accent Marks in Spansih: With Exercises

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For some pointers on how to do accent marks on a computer, click here: 
   

Basic Rules of Thumb

  If a word ends in a vowel, or 'n' or 's', the stress is usually on the next to the last syllable.
• If a word ends in a consonant other than 'n' or 's', the stress is usually on the last syllable.
• If the stress in a word doesn't follow rules 1 and 2, then the syllable that is stressed needs a written accent mark over the vowel.
     

Section One
THE SYLLABLE IN SPANISH

  • There are two kinds of syllables in Spanish: those that are stressed (tónicas) and those that are unstressed (átonas)
  • One-syllable words will be either tónicas or átonas. 
  • In words with more that one syllable, only one can be stressed.
     

Stressed vs Unstressed Syllables

  In the following paragraph all of the stressed syllables are underlined. Notice that sometimes the stressed syllables have an accent mark, but that usually they don't. However, an unstressed syllable will never, ever, have an accent mark. Some one-syllable words are stressed and some are not. If you want to write a word and you don't know which syllables are stressed and which ones aren't, try pronouncing the word out loud, or ask a native speaker to pronounce it for you.
  Aquí todo va   de  mal   en   peor.   La   semana   pasada   se   murió   mi   a   Jacinta,   y   el   bado, cuando ya   la   haamos   enterrado   y   comenzaba   a   bajársenos   la   tristeza,   comen   a   llover   como  nunca.   A   mi   pa  eso   le   dio   coraje, porque toda   la   cosecha   de   cebada   estaba   asoleándose   en   el   solar.   Y   el   aguacero   lle   de   repente,   en   grandes olas   de agua,   sin   darnos tiempo   ni   siquiera   a   esconderaunque fuera   un   manojo;   lo   único    que   pudimos   hacer, todos   los   de   mi casa,   fue   estarnos   arrimados   debajo   del   tejaván, viendo mo   el agua fría   que   caía   del   cielo   quemaba   aquella   cebada   amarilla   tan   recién   cortada. 
    Y   apenas   ayer, cuando   mi   hermana  Tacha   acababa   de   cumplirdoce años,   supimos   que   la   vaca   que   mi   pa   le   regaló para   el   a   de   su  santo   se   la   haa   llevado   el   o.
     

Section Two
DIPHTHONGS IN SPANISH

 

The vowels a, e, and o are strong in Spanish. They always form their own syllable wherever they appear. The vowels u and i are weak, and only form their own syllable when they are separate from other vowels. When a weak vowel is next to a strong vowel or another weak vowel, they AUTOMATICALLY form a diphthong, that is, just one syllable.

Diphthongs

 

In the following examples the number of syllables in each word is shown in parentheses after the word. The stressed syllables are in boldface.

Strong vowels (a, e, o) always form their own syllables:

 

o - tor - gar (3)

ra - na (2)

a - van - za - da (4)

co - rre - o (3)

es - pa - ña (3)

ha - blar (2)

a - po - sen - to (4)

- ba - na (3)

   
  Weak vowels (i, u) form a their own syllable if they are "surrounded" by consonants:
 

 tri - bu (2)

mi - to (2)

ci - ne (2)

mís - ti - co (3)

cu - bo (2)

fút - bol (2)

la - rin - gi - tis (4)

es - - ri - tu (4)

   
  Otherwise, weak vowels form a diphthong with the strong vowel that is next to them:
 

 lue - go (2)

tie - nes (2) 

a - diós (2) 

co - mió (2)

far - ma - céu - ti - co (5)

buey (1)

dio (1)

que - réis (2)

   

Section Three
ONE-SYLLABLE WORDS

      One-syllable words in Spanish never have an accent mark unless they fall into the group described in Section Six. Don't get in the habit of putting accent marks on one-syllable words as some sort of ornament. Don't put an accent mark on a one-syllable word unless you know why! This rule was adopted by the Academia de la Lengua Española in 1952. There are still many native speakers (most of them either old and educated before the new rules or not well educated at all) who continue to put accent marks on many one-syllable words (particularly verbs). Don't do it! It's a nasty habit.
   

Section Four
POLYSYLLABIC WORDS

  There are four categories of multisyllabic words in Spanish, as far as stress is concerned. A word's stress category has to do with which syllable is tónica.
• Palabras llanas are stressed on the next to the last syllable (la penúltima).
• Palabras agudas are stressed on the last syllable (la última).
• Palabras esdrújulas are stressed on the third to the last syllable (la antepenúltima). 
• Palabras sobresdrújulas are stressed on the fourth to the last syllable.
   

Palabras llanas

  All of the following words are stressed on the next to last syllable (o la penúltima sílaba).
 

no - che

ár - bol

bi - go - te

pe - rro

ca - ba - llo

co - ci - na

fa - bu - lo - so

lib - ro

ac - ci - den - te

fi - lo - so - - a

es - ta - cio - nes

hi - jos

cés - ped

hue - so

sa - ra - pe

   

Palabras agudas

  Each of the following words is stressed on the last syllable (o la última sílaba).
 

fri - jol

can - tar

hab -

an - dén

so - por - tar

sen -

ma - ra - tón

re - loj

ñan -

baj - ó

sar - tén

pin - cel

   

Palabras esdrújulas

  All of the following words are stressed on the third to the last syllable (o la antepenúltima sílaba). Notice that esdrújulas always have a written accent mark.
 

fan - tás - ti - co

pa - ra - - ti - co

én - fa - sis

es - - pi - dos

lu - ciér - na - ga

mur - cié - la - go

es - drú - ju - la

miér - co - les

ri - - cu - lo

an - - li - cas

sín - te - sis

a - - li - sis

   

Palabras sobresdrújulas

  All of the following words are stressed on the fourth to the last syllable (¡o la preantepenúltima sílaba!).  Notice that sobresdrújulas always have a written accent mark.Notice also that in each of them the last two syllables are attached pronouns.
 

fu - mán - do - me - la

es - cri - bién - do - se - lo

di - cién - do - me - lo

   

Section Five
THE RULES: THE WRITTEN ACCENT MARK

(el acento ortográfico or tilde)
  • One-syllable words DO NOT have a written accent mark unless they follow the rules in the next section.
• If a word ends in a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or n or s and it is not llana, put an accent mark over the stressed syllable.
• If a word ends in a consonant (other than n or s) and it is not aguda, put an accent mark over the stressed syllable.
• An accent mark will also be placed over a weak vowel (u or i) in order to break an automatic diphthong
 
  Words that end in a vowel (or "n" or "s") and are not llanas
 

ha - bló

viv - vió

can -

sar - tén

cor - tés

fre - ne -

mas - ti -

pon - dréis

Tim - buk -

 
  Words that end in a consonant (not "n" or "s") and are not agudas
 

ár - bol

cés - ped

chó - fer

pós - ter

di - - cil

- cil

   
  Breaking natural diphthongs
 

ba - úl

- o

ha - - a

a - ún

Ma - - a

con - ti - - a

pa - na - de - - a

- a

- o

 
  Look at the differences between the following
 

- o

rio

 

ha - - a

ha - cia

a - ún

aun

 

va - - o va - ció  
   

Section Six
HOMOPHONOUS MONOSYLLABIC PAIRS

 

One-syllable words, when they are part of a homophone pair, are distinguished from each other by marking the one that is stressed (tónica) with an accent mark. 
.
To count as a homophonous monosyllabic pair, the two words must:

  • Be just one syllable long
  • Be spelled the same
  • Belong to two distinct grammatical categories (i.e., nouns, verbs, pronouns, prepositions, etc.)

    Therefore, although the word "ve" is a homphone (from "ver" it means "he sees" and from "ir" it's a command form for "go"), since both words are verbs (in the same grammatical category), neither one carries an accent mark. Indeed they are both streesed without it. However, the word "se" can have three meanings. One is the reflexive pronoun, is unstressed and does not have an accent mark, and the others are both verbs (from "ser" it's a command for "be" and from "saber" it means "I know") and both carry a written accent.

  NEVER PUT AN ACCENT MARK ON A ONE-SYLLABLE WORD UNLESS YOU ARE AWARE OF THE CORRESPONDING HOMOPHONE THAT DOES NOT NEED AN ACCENT MARK.
   
 

The list of homophonous monosyllables

  I believe that this is a complete list of all of the one-syllable words that can carry an accent mark in Spanish. If you find any others, please email me at tmathews@weber.edu (but I haven't added a word since 1996).
 

UNSTRESSED WORD

STRESSED WORD

el

the ("el anillo")

él

he, him ("es él", "es para él")

te

yourself ("¿Cómo te llamas?")

tea

si

if

yes, himself

se

himself, herself

I know, be ("¡Sé bueno!")

mas

but ("quiero, mas no puedo")

más

more ("¿Quieres más?")

que

that ("más que nada")

qué

what ("¿Qué piensas?")

tu

your ("tu libro")

you ("¿Cómo estás tú?")

mi

my ("mi casa")

me ("es para mí")

de

of

give

cuan

So (tan) (uso arcaico) ("Mira el pelo cuan largo lo tengo")

cuán

how ("¡Cuán desgraciado soy! ")

cual

which ("Esta carta, la cual no tiene remitente, llegó ayer")

cuál

which ("¿Cuál es el mejor?)

quien

who ("Hay quien dice eso")

quién

who ("¿Quién es esa mujer?")

   

Section Seven
PROSODIC STRESS & MISCELLANEOUS ACCENT MARKS

 

Interrogative pronouns have a tilde over their stressed syllable to distinguish them from adverbial conjunctions.
• The word aún means todavía or still, while aun means incluso or even
• In exception to the comment in Section One, that any Spanish word may have only one stressed syllable, those adverbs that end in -mente, actually have two stresses: one (unwritten) on the suffix -mente, and the original stress in the adjective from with the adverb is derived. If the adjective by itself carries a tilde, then it is maintained in the adverbial form.

   
 

Interrogatives

 

CONJUNCTIONS &
RELATIVE PRONOUNS

INTERROGATIVES

que

"that" (Es importante que estudies).

qué

"what" (¿Qué deseas comer?)

cuando

"when" (Me acuesto cuando tengo sueño.)

cuándo

"when" (¿Cuándo vas a venir?)

como

"since/because", "like", "as" (Como tiene gripe, está 
guardando cama. / Marta baila como una princesa.)

cómo

"how", "what" (¿Cómo te llamas?)

donde

"where" (Vamos a comer donde vive mi hermano.)

dónde

"where" (¿Dónde vives?)

quien

"who/that" (Fue Enrique quien rompió la ventana.)

quién

"who" (¿Quién escupió en el suelo?)

porque

"because" (Paco ayuna porque está de régimen.)

por qué

"why" (¿Por qué hablas tanto?)

   
  Notice that interrogatives carry accent marks even if they are in an indirect question. Observe the following
  Paco aprendió cómo son los gatos silvestres.
No sabemos dónde poner el sofá.
El profesor nos explicó el cómo y el porqué.
No sé quién me escribió la carta.
   
 

Adverbs that end in "-mente"

  If the adjective has an accent mark then the adverb with -mente does also
 

ADJECTIVES

ADVERBS

 

ADJECTIVES

ADVERBS

lenta

lentamente

 

fácil

 fácilmente

hermosa

hermosamente

 

cómoda

 cómodamente

espiritual

espiritualmente

 

rápida

 rápidamente

total

totalmente

 

crítica

 críticamente

simple

simplemente

 

ágil

 ágilmente

alta

altamente

 

estrépita

estrépitamente

   

CHANGES MADE IN 2010

  Previous to 2010:
  Demonstrative pronouns carried a tilde over their stressed syllable to distinguish them from demonstrative adjectives. These adjectives always precede nouns, the pronouns never do.
The new rule calls for no accent mark on any demonstratives at all.
• The word sólo meant solamente, while solo meant alone (masculine singular).
Today, neither word carries an accent mark.
It is true that this allows for ambiguity (as in "Juan trabaja solo en la cocina"). However, the new rule reflects an ambiguity that exists in the spoken langauge and this seems proper.
• The word o (meaning or) carried an accent mark only between numerals so that it was not confused with 0 (zero).
        "Quiero cinco o seis dulces".  vs  "Quiero 5 ó 6 dulces". 
Now, the rule is not to put an accent mark on "o".
The Academy's stated reasoning is that since computer printed text has become so comon, there is little chance that an "o" (letter) and a "0" number" will be confused. I have my doubts and I believe users will continue to put an accent on the word "ó", particularly when writing by hand.