Use of written accent marks in Spanish


Accent marks are in Spanish for two different purposes: to indicate where the stress or emphasis falls on a word when it is pronounced, and to help differentiate between identically spelled words. They are only used over vowels (á, é, í, ó, ú), and are written as a short diagonal line, from upper right to lower left.

  1. The following rules regarding written accents assume you know on which syllable of a word the stress occurs. An accent mark is normally NOT required if:
    1. The word ends in a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or n or s and the stress falls on the next-to-the-last (or penultimate) syllable. Examples:

      camino   [ca-MI-no, road, ends in a vowel, and the stress falls on the next-to-the last syllable]
      hablan [HA-blan, they speak, ends in an n and the stress falls on the next-to-the-last syllable]
      muchachas [mu-CHA-chas, girls, ends in an s and the stress falls on the next-to-the-last syllable]

    2. The word ends in a consonant other than n or s and the stress falls on the last syllable. Examples:

      querer   [que-RER, to want, ends in an r and the stress falls on the last syllable]
      ciudad [ciu-DAD, city, ends in a d and the stress falls on the last syllable]

  2. A written accent mark IS required if the situation is not as given in the above two rules, that is, when:

    1. The word ends in a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or n or s and the stress falls on the last syllable. Examples:

      caminó   [ca-mi-NÓ, he/she walked ends in a vowel, and the stress falls on the last syllable]
      canción [can-CIÓN, song, ends in an n and the stress falls on the last syllable]
      verás [ve-RÁS, you will see, ends in an s and the stress falls on the last syllable]

    2. The word ends in a consonant other than n or s and the stress falls on the next-to-last syllable.  Examles:

      mártir   [MÁR-tir, martyr, ends in an r and the stress falls on the next-to-the-last syllable]
      cárcel [CÁR-cel, jail, ends in an l and the stress falls on the next-to-the-last syllable]

    3. The stress falls on any vowel more than two syllables from the end of the word.  Examples:

      propósito   [pro-PÓ-si-to, purpose, is stressed on the third-from-the-last syllable]
      dándomelo [DÁN-do-me-lo, giving it to me, is stressed on the fourth-from-the last syllable]

    4. The stress falls on a weak vowel (i or u) which comes immediately before or after a strong vowel (a, e, o).  Examples:

      día   [DÍ-a, day; the stress falls on an i which is immediately followed by an a]
      actúo [ac-TÚ-o, I act; the stress falls on a u which is immediately followed by an o]

      Note: Unless accented, the letters i and u become semi-consonants when the come in contact with other vowels. Thus, without written accents, the above words would be pronounced DYA (one syllable) and AC-tuo (two syllables).

    To sum up the above rules:

    Does the word end in a, e, i, o, u, n, or s?

    • If the answer is “yes” and it is not stressed on the next-to-the-last syllable, a written accent is required.
    • If the answer is “no” and it is not stressed on the last syllable, a written accent is required.

  3. Accent marks are required on some words to differentiate them from otherwise identically spelled ones. There are three groups of these word pairs; in all cases the more emphatic word of the pair carries the written accent mark

    1. Exclamation and question words are written with a written accent mark; the corresponding relative pronouns or connecting words are not:

      ¿adónde? (to) where?          adonde (to) where
      ¿cómo? how? como as, like, because
      ¿cuál? which? cual which, as
      ¿cuándo? when? cuando when
      ¿cuánto(s)? how much, how many? cuanto(s) as much, as many
      ¿dónde? where? donde where
      ¿qué? what, how? que which, that
      ¿quién(es)? who, whom? quien who, whom

      Examples:

      ¿Adónde vas?       Where are you going?
      ¿Cuánto cuesta? How much does it cost?
      ¡Qué interesante! How interesting!
      No sé cómo se llama. I don't know what his/her name is. (indirect question)
      Cuando vengan, iremos al parque. When they come, we'll go to the park.
      Digo que no es verdad. I say that it isn't true.
      La mujer de quien hablas es la jefa. The woman you're talking about is the boss.

    2. Several pairs of monosyllabic (one-syllable) words are similarly distinguished by the presence or absence of accent marks. The word that is more emphatic receives the written accent.

        give (subjunctive of dar)        de   of, from
      él he, him el the
      más more, most mas but
      me mi my
      I know (saber), be (ser) se himself, herself, etc.
      yes, indeed si if, whether
      tea te you, yourself
      you tu your

    3. The demonstrative pronouns (éste, ése, and aquél, this one, that one) generally carry a written accent mark, while the demonstrative adjectives (este, ese, and aquel, this, that) never do. Note also that the neuter pronouns esto, eso, and aquello (this thing, this matter, this business) never take an accent mark since there is no corresponding adjective form.

      éste    ésta    éstos    éstas    this one, these
      ése ésa ésos ésas that one, those
      aquél aquélla aquéllos aquéllas that one, those

      este    esta    estos    estas    this, these
      ese esa esos esas that, those
      aquel aquella aquellos aquellas that, those

      Examples:

      No me gusta esta blusa; prefiero ésa.      I don't like this blouse; I prefer that one.
      Eso es estraño. That's strange.

  4. Special cases.

    1. When an adverb is formed by adding -mente to the feminine form of an adjective, the accent mark is retained, if the adjective form has one.   Examples:

      fácil   easy      fácilmente   easily
      rápido quick rápidamente quickly

    2. Sólo vs. solo:

      Sólo (with an accent)  =  solamente, only (an adverb)
      solo (without an accent mark)  =  alone (an adjective).

    3. Por qué vs. porque:

      Por qué (two words, with an accent mark)  =  why (question word)
      porque (one word, no accent mark)  =  because.

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Contact: Fred F. Jehle

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Indiana University - Purdue University Ft. Wayne

Last updated: Jan. 12, 2006

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URL: http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/courses/accents.htm