All about Spanish accent marks and rules
Published on August 12, 2020 / Updated on November 4, 2022
A lot of Spanish words have accent marks – the small diagonal lines, which appear over certain letters when written down – are one of the most instantly notable features of the Spanish language. However, understanding when and where to use them can seem like a daunting task, especially if you are a novice.
Fortunately, there are a few key rules which govern the use of accent marks and stresses within Spanish. That means that, once you understand and learn them, this seemingly confusing aspect of the language suddenly makes a whole lot more sense, and you will have a far greater understanding of how pronunciation works.
Accents, sometimes known as ’tildes’, appear at the top of certain letters in Spanish, and are written as a short diagonal line, from the top right to the bottom left. They can only ever appear over the five vowel letters (á, é, í, ó, ú), meaning you will never see a Spanish word with an accent mark over a consonant.
Written accents have three main functions within the language. The first is to separate words which would otherwise be spelled identically, the second is to signify questions, while the third (and perhaps most important) function is to help indicate which syllable of the word should be stressed, or emphasised, when spoken aloud.
A stressed syllable can be broadly defined as a syllable that is given greater emphasis, relative to the other syllables around it. This may be signalled through pronunciation in several different ways, including increased vowel length, increased loudness, or a change in pitch. All Spanish words have at least one stress.
Within the Spanish language, stress is functional, meaning that the location of stressed syllables can alter the meaning of the words being spoken. For instance, the words célebre and celebré have different meaning – ‘famous’ and ‘I celebrated’, respectively – and pronunciation is separated only by the location of the stressed syllable.
With regards to stressed syllables in Spanish, there are two key rules to remember:
1: If a word ends with a vowel, or the letters ‘s’ or ‘n’, the penultimate syllable is stressed.
2: If a word ends with a consonant other than ‘s’ or ‘n’, the final syllable is stressed.
Words where the penultimate syllable is stressed are said to be paroxytone and a total of 79.5 percent of all Spanish words fall into this category. On the other hand, words where the final syllable is stressed are said to be oxytone. Meanwhile, words which break these two rules, by having the stress on the third-to-last syllable are proparoxytone.
The word camino (path) ends in a vowel, so the penultimate syllable is stressed and it is paroxytone. The word animal (animal) ends in a consonant other than ‘n’ or ‘s’, so the final syllable is stressed and it is oxytone. Both of these words are in-keeping with the two key roles referred to above.
However, the word propósito (purpose) ends in a vowel, but breaks the rule, as the stress is on the third-to-last syllable [pro-PÓ-si-to]. It is, therefore, proparoxytone. This is where we start to see the use of written accents within the Spanish language, in order to mark the location of stresses.
Once you get to grips with those two basic rules surrounding stresses in the Spanish language, the use of accent marks starts to make much more sense. Essentially, accents are used to indicate the position of the stress in words which break one of the two key rules mentioned above.
The word exámenes (exams) ends in an ‘s’, so according to rule #1, the stress should be on the penultimate syllable. Instead, the stress is on the second syllable, so an accent mark appears above the ‘a’.
The word compró (buy) ends in a vowel, so according to rule #1, the stress should be on the penultimate syllable. Instead, the stress is on the last syllable, so an accent mark appears above the ‘o’.
The word débil (weak) ends in a consonant other than ‘n’ or ‘s’, so according to rule #2, the stress should be on the last syllable. Instead, the stress is on the first syllable, so an accent appears above the ‘e’.
Now that you understand why they appear, you can start to view accent marks as a helpful pronunciation guide, rather than an alien concept. The important things to remember are that these accents can only appear above vowels, and they indicate the syllable which should be stressed in words which break the two basic stress rules.
As stated earlier, a second main use of accent marks within the Spanish language is to help people to distinguish between words which have different meanings, but which would otherwise be spelled and pronounced identically. These words are known as ‘homonyms’ and these relationships are said to be ‘homonymous’.
Take a look at some of the most common homonymous words and look at how accents are used to separate them:
There are few rules to govern which types of words are given accents in Spanish in order to separate them from their homonyms, so you must simply learn them as different vocabulary. It is also worth noting that not all homonyms within the Spanish language are distinguished from one another through the use of accents.
Finally, accent marks are also used to denote question words within the Spanish language. To provide an example of this, the word ‘which’, when used as a connective word, is cual in Spanish. Yet, when the word ‘which’ is used as a question word (i.e. to mean ‘which?’), it is written as ¿cuál? instead.
The exact same pattern can be observed in other question words, as the following examples show:
So, to summarise, accent marks can help you to pinpoint the location of stresses within words, to understand which version of a homonym is being used, or to identify the presence of a question. They can, therefore, be viewed as a helpful guide for both pronunciation and comprehension purposes.