Would you like some tea? Sí or si, tú or tu?

Perplexity, that’s the word that better describes my astonishment when, innocently and naively, decided to learn some Chinese and heard that different pitches of a single sound vary the meaning of a… word? What, are they kidding me?! But then I read this post from The Language Garage that calmed me down a little bit.

Spanish has some pairs of words that are used everyday, in every single conversation, whose sounds are the same, but whose use and meaning are very different: , se, si, , te, , tu, , el, él, mi, . 

Don’t freak out, we’re going to show you how to deal with this. The first thing you need to know to relax: is that Spanish uses a mark, called accent (or tilde), in order to avoid confusions between those words in the written language. The second one thing to chill: is to keep reading this post along with all the other post from The Language Garage.

Would you like some tea?

There’s a well-known rule in Spanish that says: words consisting of only one syllable should never have an accent. Those words are called «monosyllables», by the way. That’s why we no longer need to write (faith), we just write fe. But most of the time there’s an exception for a rule. In this case, they broke the rule to distinguish two monosyllables with the same sound and spelling but different meaning like te (you) and (tea).

Te prepararé un té.
I’ll prepare you a tea.

The first te, the one without the accent, is the pronoun you (used for the second person singular), the second , the one that carries the accent, is the name of the drink that I just offered you: tea. As you can see, apart from context, only the accent would help us to recognize one word from another. 

Yes, I think you want some tea

Si and , along with tu and , are probably the most confusing ones. Maybe because they’re used all the time, so there’s more opportunity to make mistakes with them. 

Sí, quiero un té, solo si tienes azúcar.
Yes, I’d like a tea, only if you have sugar.

The first , crowned with the accent, is the exclamation we use to give affirmative answers: yes. The second si, accent-free, is the conjunction we use to introduce a condition: if.

The Savage Detectives

The famous Chilean author, Roberto Bolaño, said in one of the greatest novels ever written in Spanish, Los detectives salvajes:

«Tú tienes a tu verdadero amor a tu lado».
«You have your true love by your side».

Thewith the accent at the beginning of the sentence is the personal pronoun you. The next tu, and the one after that, are the possessive pronouns your. These possessive pronouns don’t carry an accent.

Where is he?

You have to keep your eyes open not to confuse the masculine singular definite article el (the) with the third person masculine pronoun he. 

Él está en el parque.
He is at the park.

The pronoun él (he), as you can see in the sentence above, should always be marked with the accent. Again: that’s how you distinguish el (the) article from él (he).

What do you know?

Unfortunately, the verb to know (saber) is also involved in this accent distinction situation for monosyllables. When reading or writing the first person (I know), you don’t want to get confused with the third person pronoun se, which could be also used as a reflexive he or himself. 

Sé que él se siente mal por eso.
I know that he feels himself bad about it.

or

Sé que ella se siente mal por eso.
I know that he feels herself bad about it.

Now you know two more things: one is that the verb (I know) always has an accent, and two: that the pronoun se (he, she, himself, herself) doesn’t have an accent and never changes its form to masculine or feminine, plural or singular. It stays still.

Last but not least

As with tu and , we have another pair of pronoun twins, one of which requires the accent mark in order for us to know who is who. I’m talking about the first person possessive pronoun mi (my) and the first person pronoun , the one a speaker uses to refer to himself or herself: me.

Mi madre siempre creyó en mí.
My mother always believed in me.

Yup! Never put an accent on the possessive mi, and don’t forget it on the one with the me meaning .

Summarizing 

Take this cheat sheet with you as you try to memorize all these differences: 

accent mark

not accent mark

yes

siif

tea

teyou

you

tuyour

I know

sehe/she/himself/herself

me

mimy

élhe

elthe

 

Images from Wikipedia and Flickr

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