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Rules for written accents in Spanish
Why written accents matter
Written accent marks are important in Spanish for a number of reasons. Despite what most learner of the language think they do not exist for their personal torture. These marks are used to dictate pronunciation of words and to differentiate between two otherwise similar words or verb forms. Without a written accent there is no way to distinguish between the following:
- mi-mí (my-me)
- tu-tú (your-you)
- si-sí (if-yes)
- de-dé (of-give [present subjunctive])
- el-él (the-he)
- mas-más (but-more)
Differences in verb forms are often made through the use of pronunciation, and therefore must be reflected in writing with accent marks. Here are some examples:
- hablo-habló (I talk-he talked)
- hablara-hablará (that he talked [past subjunctive]-he will talk)
- hable-hablé (that I/he talk [present subjunctive]- I talked)
- circulo-círculo-circuló (I circle-a circle-he/she circled)
Stressing the right syllable
The rules for dividing and stressing syllables differs in Spanish from English. There is a concrete rule for where the stress should fall in a word depending on what the word ends in. This will be referred to as the "natural stress." Because it is the naturally occurring stress based on the rules it does not need to have a written accent mark. It is simply understood. When the stress rules are being broken and the stress is purposely being placed on a different syllable, either to make a new verb form or simply because that is the correct pronunciation, an accent mark must be used.
Counting syllables in Spanish is always done by starting at the end of the word and syllables are referred to by their place from the end. The syllables are called último, penúltimo, antepenúltimo, antes del antepenúltimo (last, next to last, third to last, fourth to last).
The rules for natural stress are:
- The stress is always on the next to last (penúltima) syllable in words that end in vowels, or the consonants n or s. These words are called "llana" or "grave."
- The stress is always on the last (última) syllable in words that end in other consonants. These are called "aguda."
Examples of where the stress falls in words that do not have (ie. do not need) written accents:
Moving the stress
The actual pronunciation is what governs when and where accent marks must be written in. It is impossible to know whether a new word has or should have an accent mark if you have never heard it spoken correctly. Many times instructors teaching accent marks give students a list of words to write in the accent marks when necessary. But unless the instructor correctly pronounces the words first the student will not know how to mark words that are completely new to him or her. Suppose you had never heard the words "cafeteria" and "secretaria." There would be know that they are pronounced very differently and are in fact "cafetería" (with accent mark) and "secretaria" (without accent mark).
When the pronounced stress does not coincide with the natural stress rules a written accent mark is used to move the stress. Think of this as taking an otherwise weak syllable and giving it a baseball bat to hold over its head to make it stronger.
In the previous example of "cafetería" the final "ia" combination is a diphthong (two vowels that are pronounced together as one syllable) and therefore the natural stress is on the "e." This would produce the wrong pronunciation so the accent mark is written over the "i" to strengthen it. This puts the stress on the the "i" and also separates the diphthong so that the "i" and the "a" are two syllables.
The word "corazon" ends in "n" and therefore should have its stress on the "a." However, when this word is pronounced it is stressed on the "o." To make the actual pronunciation correspond the "o" must be strengthened. This is done by writing in the accent mark: corazón.
Examples, Examples, Examples
Words whose stress in on the last (última) syllable are called "agudas" whether that stress is natural or forced.
- hablar, comer, vivir, and all verbs in the infinitive form
- Paraguay y Uruguay
Agudas with written accent:
- está, estáis, están
- hablé, comí, viví (many 1st and 3rd person singular verbs in preterite)
Words whose stress in on the second to last (penúltima) syllable are called llana or grave.
- escritorio (see explanation of diphthongs above)
Llanas with written accent:
Words that are stressed on a the third or fourth to last (antepenúltimo and antes del antepenúltimo) syllable always must have written accents since this is not a natural condition. These are called "esdrújulo" and "sobreesdrújulo," respectively.
- hablándome, comiéndolo (all present participles with one pronoun at the end)
- comprártelo (all infinitives with two pronouns at the end)
The only time these occur is when a present participles or commands has two pronouns at the end.
Write them in!
Now that you know when and where to use accent marks there are no excuses...unless you don't know how to make them on your computer. For PC word processing most of the time all you have to do is hold down CTRL, hit the apostrophe, then the vowel. However, when this doesn't work, such as with the internet, hold down ALT and use the following codes:
- é =130
- á =160
- í =161
- ó =162
- ú =163
These are not for accents but could be helpful:
- ñ =164
- ¿ =168
- ¡ =173
- « =174
- » =175