Acentos en español = Written Accents in Spanish

Everything you ever wanted to know about Spanish written accents all in one place!

There are only two reasons for using written accents in Spanish:

  1. Pronunciation
  2. Differentiating between two words that are spelled and pronounced the same

Pronunciation

To understand when to use a written accent for reasons of pronunciation, first you need to know how words are pronounced. There are two instances where written accents are used to indicate pronunciation:

  1. When the stressed syllable does not follow the pronunciation rules
  2. Diphthongs and hiatuses

The stressed syllable - la sílaba tónica

Spanish is a phonetic language, but how do you know where to place the stress on a word? In Spanish one syllable is always emphasised, this stressed syllable is known as the sílaba tónica. Fortunately there are just two rules you need to learn to know how all Spanish words are pronounced:

  1. All words that end with a consonant that is not N or S, have the stress on the last syllable.
  2. All words that end with a vowel or an N or an S, have the stress on the penultimate (second to last) syllable.

Let's listen to some examples that follow the rules:

Ending in a consonant (not -N or -S) = stress on last syllable

MadridMadrid

radiadorradiator

Ending in a vowel = stress on penultimate syllable

manzanaapple

cervezabeer

playabeach

aeropuertoairport

Ending in -N or -S = stress on penultimate syllable

comen[they] eat

compran[they] buy

graciasthanks

Breaking the rules

Helpfully, if a word breaks the pronunciation rules described above, then the written accent known as a tilde [´] is used to indicate which syllable needs to be stressed instead. Thank you tilde!

Ending in a consonant (not -N or -S)

árboltree

lápizpencil

azúcarsugar

Ending in a vowel:

dicodoctor

cafécoffee

hindúHindu

comeréI will eat

Ending in -N or -S:

aviónplane

miércolesWednesday

perdónsorry

If these words didn't have a written accent, they would be pronounced following the pronunciation rules described above. Have a listen and compare these incorrect versions to the correct ones with the written accent above:

arboltree

medicodoctor

miercolesWednesday

Just for fun, let's look and listen to these examples of words that are spelled the same but pronounced completely differently depending on if and where the tilde is used: 

sábanasheet

sabanasavanna

tácitatacit (feminine adjective)

tacitalittle cup (feminine noun)

árbitro referee (noun)

arbitróhe/she umpired (verb)

Tenses and demonstratives

This rule about pronunciation is particularly important to differentiate tenses and demonstratives.

Tenses

Often we find a conjugated verb in two different tenses with the same spelling but different pronunciations, which is why one has a written accent. Have a look and listen to some examples:

vs

Yo hablo español.I speak Spanish.

Ella habló con él.She spoke with him.

vs

No quería que hablara contigo.She didn't want me to speak with you.

Ella hablará contigo mañana.She will speak with you tomorrow.

 

Demonstratives and verbs

vs 

Esta mañana he ido al mercado.This morning I went to the market.

Tu madre está en el mercado.Your mother is at the market.

vs 

Ya hemos visto este monumento.We've already seen this monument.

Espero que tu padre esté bien.I hope your father is well.

 

Diphthongs and hiatuses

These fancy words just mean that two vowels are next to each other.

Diphthong

A diphthong is where two vowels are in the same syllable and they are pronounced together in one go. For example:

"béisbol" (béis-bol)

Hiatus

A hiatus is formed when the two vowels are next to each other but belong to two different syllables. They are pronounced separately. For example:

"maestro" (ma-es-tro)

Strong and Weak Vowels

To know how to divide the word into syllables correctly, you need to know that in Spanish vowels are defined as strong or weak vowels:

  • strong vowels: a / e / o
  • weak vowels:  i / u

These are the rules for the how strong and weak vowels impact syllables and therefore pronunciation:

Vowel Type Combination Result  Pronunciation rule   Example
Strong + Strong   Hiatus Regular pronunciation rules apply maestro = ma-es-tro

Strong + Weak

or

Weak + Strong

 diphthong  STRONG vowel is stressed

aula = au-la

fuerte = fuer-te

Weak + Weak   diphthong  SECOND vowel is stressed ruido = rui-do 

Breaking the rules

Any word that does not follow these rules requires a written accent (tilde) to indicate the stressed vowel, for example:

oídoinner-ear

ríoriver

MaríaMaria

baúltrunk

BúhoOwl

Ella rehúye los problemas.She avoids problems.

Notice that the last two examples above have letter "h" between the two vowels, but because the h is silent in Spanish, it is as if the two vowels where together. We need to put an accent on the weak vowel to separate the syllables.

Triphthongs

A triphthong is formed when there are three vowels in the same syllable. There needs to be a strong vowel between two weak vowels

To know whether the written accent is needed or not, you need to follow the general rules for accentuation in Spanish. If a triphthongs requires a written accent, then it is always on the weak vowel, never on the strong vowel.

Some example of triphthongs are:

Vosotros estudiáis mucho.You study a lot.

Quiero que apreciéis a vuestros compañeros.I want you to appreciate your classmates.

The words "estudiáis" and "apreciéis" have an accent on the triphthong because the stress is on the last syllable (-diáis, -ciáis) and they end in -s, therefore the written accent is needed, as per rules of accentuation in Spanish.

Other examples:

¿Os fiais de ella? Yo no.Do you guys trust her? I don't.

El gato dijo miau.The cat said meow.

These words have only one syllable and monosyllabic words in Spanish don't take a written accent (unless there needs to make a distinction between two words with the same spelling but different meanings.)

Special cases of triphthongs: including "y"

When considering triphthongs, the letter "y" is considered a vowel (equivalent to the letter "i") and so some triphthongs may contain the letter "y" in combination with other vowels. However, when it comes to the the rules of whether the written accent is required or not as determined by the last letter of the word, the y retains its status as a consonent. So, for example:

Vive en Uruguay.He lives in Uruguay.

El concierto estuvo muy guay.The concert was really cool.

The word Uruguay has no written accent because the stress is on the last syllable and the last letter is "consonant y" and in accordance with the rules for accentuation, only words ending on -n-s or a vowel require a written accent.

The word guay is not accentuated either because monosyllabic words are never accentuated.

Here is a video in Spanish explaining how to recognise diphthongs and hiatuses:

 

Here is a video in Spanish explaining how to accentuate diphthongs and hiatuses:

 

 

Lessons with more detail on Acentos En Español (Written Accents in Spanish)

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