How Accent Marks are Used in Spanish

Beginner learners of Spanish often have a hard time sorting out how accent marks are used in Spanish. Some vowels have accents over them, and some don’t. It may seem confusing, but there are actually just a few things you need to know in order to understand how accent marks are used in Spanish. Stress is the most important.

Stressed Syllables

Whenever you see an accent mark, it marks a stressed syllable.

  • está (eh-STAH)
    is
  • Bogotá (bo-go-TAH)
    the city in Colombia
  • México (MEH-hee-koh)
    the country
Spelling Rules

Spanish has very regular pronunciation and spelling rules. There are only three key things to keep in mind when it comes to syllable stress. First, if a word ends in a vowel or the consonants –n or –s, the rule is that the stress falls on the second-to-last (or penultimate if you’re into terminology) syllable. Notice that h is silent, by the way.

  • mexicana (meh-hee-KAH-nah)
    Mexican (f.)
  • estudiante (eh-stoo-DHAHN-teh)
    student
  • hablan (AH-blan)
    they speak
  • hoteles (oh-TEH-lehs)
    hotels

Minor point: i + a vowel, for example –ia/-io/etc. counts as one syllable, pronounced –ya/-yo/etc. If the last syllable in a word is i + vowel, the stress regularly falls on the syllable before it.

  • gracias (GRAY-syahs)
    thank you
  • Tokio (TOH-kyoh)
    the city in Japan

If the word ends in any consonant other than –n or –s, the stress falls on the final consonant. A final d in Spanish, or a d between vowels, by the way, sounds more like th in this than a d. That’s the dh in the pronunciation of ciudad below. Don’t say it like “see you, Dad.”

  • ciuadad (see-yoo-DHADH)
    city
  • profesor (pro-feh-SOR)
    teacher, professor
  • español (eh-spah-NYOHL)
    Spanish
Accents Break the Rules

If the stressed syllable breaks these rules, an accent is used, simple as that. For example, the word for English is inglés. You know that a final –es would normally not be stressed, so the accent is added to show that in this word, it is stressed.

  • inglés (een-GLEHS)
    English
  • estás (eh-STAHS)
    you are
  • adiós (ah-DYOHS)
    goodbye
  • Córdoba (KOHR-doh-bah)
    the city in Spain or Argentina
  • práctica (PRAHK-tee-kah)
    practice
  • María (mah-REE-yah)
    the woman’s name (without the accent, it would be MAH-ryah)
Be careful of plurals

Sometimes when you form plurals of adjectives or nouns, an accent will either appear or disappear. If the new form, with the extra syllable, either breaks or conforms with the spelling rules, you’ll either have to add or take away the accent. For example:

  • joven (HOH-behn)
    young (singular)
  • jóvenes (HOH-beh-nehs)
    young (plural)

Since the adjective joven ends in an –n, the normal stress rules and the pronunciation are in sync. The second-to-last, or in this case the first, syllable is stressed, and there’s no need for an accent. But when you add the plural ending, the pronunciation is no longer in compliance – if it were it would hoh-BEH-nehs. Now you have to overrule the rules, so add the accent.

It’s This Word, Not That

The other use of accent marks in Spanish is to distinguish two words that are otherwise pronounced and spelled alike. For example te in te llamas (your name is, literally you call yourself) is not the same as a cup of (tea) so the accent is added. means you, and tu means your. You can read more about that here.

There are a few words of two or more syllables that are spelled alike, except for the accent, and in many cases that changes the pronunciation as well as the meaning. The most common pair is:

  • esta (EH-stah)
    this (f.)
  • está (eh-STAH)
    he/she is, you (polite) are
¿¿Qué? or Que…?

You’ll also see accents on all the interrogatives, or question words: ¿qué? (what) ¿cómo? (how), ¿dónde? (where) and so on.

  • ¿Qué haces?
    What are you doing?
  • ¿Dónde vives?
    Where do you live?

The same words, when used as conjunctions – words that links phrases inside sentences – don’t have accent marks.

  • El libro que estoy leyendo es muy bueno.
    The book that I’m reading is very good.
  • No entiendo lo que dices.
    I don’t understand what you’re saying.
  • El lugar dónde vivo es muy bonito.
    The place where I live is very pretty.

Not sure how to tell the difference between an interrogative and a conjunction? Don’t worry, you don’t need to think about the grammatical terminology. Here’s a simple tip: if you’re asking a question that starts with one of these words, you’re using an interrogative, and it will have an accent in Spanish.

Take Your Spanish Further

Be sure to check out our other posts about Spanish for more vocabulary, grammar, and culture. If you’re looking for convenient and affordable live Spanish lessons with a real teacher, check out The Language Garage. Our lessons are given online in a virtual classroom, so it doesn’t matter where you live or work – we can come to you. And we have both private and small group lessons, with a free trial so that you can decide if there’s a fit. Give us a try!

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