Accent Rules (las reglas de acentuación)

In this section we are going to learn about why words need written accent marks in Spanish. These are sometimes referred to as “tildes” in Spanish. It is important to note that there is big difference between written accents, which tell us where the stress should fall in a word, and natural stress patterns. Where and why written accents are used in Spanish is a source of confusion to learners of Spanish until they accept that they are indeed meaningful (accents aren’t just random marks over words that need to be memorized) and ...they learn the three rules that follow:

  1. For Spanish words that end in a vowel, the letter “n” or the letter “s”, the natural stress falls on the second-to-last (penultimate) syllable.
  2. For Spanish words that end in any other letter that is not a vowel, “n” or “s”, the natural stress falls on the last syllable.
  3. When a word contains the combination of “i” + another vowel or “u” + another vowel, these two vowel sounds blend to create one sound/syllable (known as a diphthong).

A Spanish word requires a written accent mark if it breaks any one of these three rules for natural stress. Note that a written accent mark over an “i” or a “u” breaks up a diphthong—it separates the two vowels into separate syllables.

Listen to the following words that require written accent marks and then decide why the accent mark is required. Which rule does the word break?

Audio Click to Guess Rule
ma-má ma-má
(breaks rule #1)
sim-pá-ti-co sim-pá-ti-co
(breaks rule #1)
Ma-rí-a Ma-rí-a
(breaks rule #3)
ca-fé ca-fé
(breaks rule #1)
cés-ped cés-ped
(breaks rule #2)
ma-íz ma-íz
(breaks rule #3)
en-ten-dió en-ten-dió
(breaks rule #1)
di-fí-cil di-fí-cil
(breaks rule #2)
rí-e rí-e
(breaks rule #3)
Can-cún Can-cún
(breaks rule #1)
ál-bum ál-bum
(breaks rule #2)
tí-o tí-o
(breaks rule #3)
ac-ción ac-ción
(breaks rule #1)
a-zú-car a-zú-car
(breaks rule #2)
re-ú-ne re-ú-ne
(breaks rule #3)
in-te-rés in-te-rés
(breaks rule #1)
Gon-zá-lez Gon-zá-lez
(breaks rule #2)
dú-o dú-o
(breaks rule #3)
pa-pá pa-pá
(breaks rule #1)
co-mí-a-mos co-mí-a-mos
(breaks rule #1 AND rule #3)
trái-ga-me-los trái-ga-me-los
(breaks rule #1)
ángel ángel
(breaks rule #2)
cabezón cabezón
(breaks rule #1)

Listen to these pair of words and try to decide why one needs a written accent while the other does not:

Written Accents—Single Syllable Words and Grammatical Distinctions

The following is a list of pairs of one-syllable words that require a written accent mark to let the reader know which word is being used. These words are always pronounced the same way regardless of the written accent mark.

  1. dé - Déme el examen (usted command of the verb dar)
    de - El hijo de mi amigo (preposition “de”)
  2. él - ¿Lo quiere él? (3rd person singular pronoun, he)
    el - El libro de español (definite article, the)
  3. más - Yo soy más guapa que ella. (more)
    mas - No quiero, mas he de hacerlo. (mas without the accent means “pero”)
  4. mí - el libro es para mí (object of a preposition, me)
    mi - éste es mi libro (possessive pronoun, my)
  5. sé - Yo sé la respuesta. (“yo” form of the verb saber)
    se - Se come bien en este restaurante. (pronoun)
  6. sí - La respuesta es Sí. (yes)
    si - Si no viene hoy, viene mañana. (if)
  7. té - me gusta el té más que el café (tea)
    te - ¿A ti, te gusta el té? (2nd person object pronoun)
  8. tú - Tú eres la luz de mi vida. (2nd person subject pronoun, you)
    tu - ¿Cuál es tu coche? (2nd person possessive pronoun, your)
  9. sólo - El drogadicto sólo piensa en su adicción. (only)
    solo/a - Prefiero estar solo cuando estudio. (alone)
  10. aún - Me han dicho que aún no se sabe si va a regresar o no. (todavía)
    aun - Continuaba trabajando aun cuando era viejo. (even)

Written Accents and Question Words

All interrogative words require written accents to distinguish them from the same words that function as conjunctions (without accents). This is true for direct and indirect questions.

Direct Questions

Indirect Questions

These words also require a written accent when they are used as exclamatives.

In other uses of these words—when they are not interrogatives or exclamatives—there is not a written accent. Here are a few examples in bold:

--Yo sé que mis padres me quieren.
I know that my parents love me.
--Tengo un perro que nunca hace lo que le digo.
I have a dog that never does what I tell him.
--Mario trabaja sólo cuando y donde quiere porque es flojo.
Mario works only when and where he wants because he is lazy.