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How to Use Accent Marks in Spanish

Written by tutor Sheri F.

There are two reasons why written accent marks (also known as tildes) are used in Spanish.

1. To demonstrate which syllable is stressed (por ejemplo: sábado, Dámelo)
2. To differentiate two words that have the same exact spelling (por ejemplo: mi y mí)

1. Stress

A. Constants and Vowels

When a word in Spanish ends in a constant other than n or s, the stress naturally falls on the last syllable, such as the infinitive vivir. When a word ends in n, s, or a vowel, the stress naturally falls on the second to last syllable, such as hablan.

When words do not conform to those rules, accent marks are used to show that the stress is on a different syllable than expected. For instance, given the Spanish word “balon,” it would be expected that the stress is on the second to last syllable. This word, however, has its stress on the last syllable, so an accent mark must be used. The correct spelling is “balón.” Other examples are ladrón (expected to be ladron, but isn’t), fácil (should be facil, but isn’t) and árbol (expected to be arbol, but isn’t).

B. Three syllables back

When a word’s stress falls on the third syllable back, an accent mark must always be used. Two examples are pájaro and sábado. To illustrate how to count syllables, it is best to go backwards. In the word pájaro, ro is syllable one, ja is syllable two, and pa is syllable three. The accent mark goes over the vowel of the third syllable back. Brújula (meaning compass) and lástima are other examples.

C. Attaching pronouns to commands and gerunds

When a pronoun or pronouns are attached to a command or gerund, it changes the length of the word. In order to maintain the integrity of the stress, accent marks show where the stress needs to be.

A simple command is “Dime el secreto” which means Tell me the secret (informal). The stress falls on “Di,” which conforms to where the stress should fall when a word ends in a vowel. It is two syllables, and nothing is needed.

When you want to say, “Tell me it” and replace secreto with the masculine pronoun “lo,” you then form the command “Dimelo.” To maintain the stress on the first syllable, you add an accent over the vowel in the first syllable. It becomes “Dímelo.”

A pronoun can also be attached at the end of a gerund.
You can say “Él está leyendo el libro,” meaning “He is reading the book.” If you replace libro with the pronoun “lo” and choose to attach it to the gerund “leyendo,” you need to place an accent mark three syllables back (the lo counts as the first syllable).

The sentence becomes:
Él está leyéndolo. Lo is syllable 1, do is syllable 2, and en is syllable 3, where the accent mark will be put. In the gerund “leyendo,” the stress naturally falls on “en” because that is the second to last syllable and no accent mark is needed. Adding “lo,” changes the amount of syllables and an accent mark must be added to maintain the stress of the original gerund.

D. ión

If a word ends in -ión, there should always be an accent over the “o,” such as in la canción. If the word becomes plural and an “es” is added, it loses an accent over the “o.” The plural of canción is canciones.

2. Differentiation

A. There are several words that are spelled the exact same way but that have different meanings. An accent mark is used to distinguish words. Some of the most common ones are:

tú = you (subject pronoun used with a verb) and tu = your (possessive pronoun)

mí = me (used after a prepostion, such as para mí) and mi = my (possessive pronoun)

sé = I know or Formal tú command and se (reflexive pronoun)

qué = What and que = that

de = from and dé = give (subjunctive yo or usted or usted command form of dar)

está = he/she/it is and esta = feminine demonstrative adjective (esta silla- this chair) and ésta= feminine demonstrative pronoun (means “this one”, which in the example above, would refer to and replace the noun chair)

B. Interrogative words

Question words have an accent mark over them when they are asking a question, but not when they answer that question.
For example,

¿Cuándo vamos a vernos? When are we going to see each other?
Vamos a vernos cuando termino mi tarea. We are going to see each other when I finish my homework.

Conclusion

Written accent marks show where stress falls and knowing where the stress falls will help you master the Spanish language. They are also important for distinguishing words that are spelled the same way. The best way to memorize when to use accents is to make sure that when you write a word that has an accent, you put the accent mark over the letter as soon as you write it. Do not wait until you have written the word to go back and write the accent.

Works Consulted

“Stress Overview.” SpanishDict. Curiosity Media, Inc, 1 Jan 2009. Web. 21 June 2013. http://www.spanishdict.com/answers/100016/stress-overview#.UcRXdODw6Fs
“Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas.” Real Academia Española. Oct. 2005. Web. 21 June 2013. http://lema.rae.es/dpd/?key=tilde
Mathews, Thomas J. A Complete Guide to Written Spanish Accent Marks in Spanish. Weber State University. Nov 2010. Web. 21 June 2013. http://faculty.weber.edu/tmathews/grammar/marks.html

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