Spanish accent marks prove that big things come in small packages. These little lines, dots, and squiggles, also known as diacritical marks, may look ornamental and unassuming, but they can drastically change the meaning of written — and typed — Spanish.
Words change meanings, verbs go from the past to the uncertain future, questions become answers, and more. In this article, we’ll cover the types of accent marks in Spanish and why they matter.
You’ll also learn how to type Spanish accents on Windows and on Mac.
Types of Spanish accent marks, explained
There are a number of accent marks specific to Spanish language that are important to understand as part of your language learning process.
Acute accent – acento ortográfico
Acute accents are accent marks over vowels to indicate the stressed syllable if the stress differs from the default pattern. Many languages derived from Latin, such as Spanish, French and Italian, use acute accent marks.
In Spanish words, there can be one or no acute accents per word. These show up in everyday words and follow certain patterns.
The rules for determining the default stressed and unstressed syllables are too complicated to cover in full here, but you’d be surprised at how many of the rules you may know just from listening to and speaking Spanish! Acute accents are particularly important for verb conjugations: conjugations can be absolutely identical save for an acute accent, so skipping the symbol might teleport your verb to an unintended tense.
For instance, the past subjunctive has –ara (AH-rah) endings for yo and él/ella/usted, but the simple future tense for él/ella/usted may have an –ará (ah-RAH) ending. Some subjunctive verbs end in -e (eh) for first and third person singular subjects, and preterite verbs conjugated for yo may end in -é (EH).
Some examples are organized in the table below.
The tilde – el tilde
Tildes are squiggles over some n’s in Spanish. They tell the reader to pronounce the letter as a “ny” sound, like the ni’s in “onion” or “opinion”.
Some common words with the ñ are el año (the year), el baño (the bathroom), el señor/la señora (Mr./Mrs., man/woman in formal situations), and la piña (the pineapple).
In older versions of written Spanish, words with this sound were written with a double n. Modern Spanish has replaced these instances of the double n with the n with tilde, which looks like an n with a tiny n resting on top.
The symbol is also found in languages that have come into contact with Spanish from colonization and migration, such as Asturian, Basque, Latin American indigenous languages, and even Filipino. Portuguese uses the tilde, or til, over its vowels to give them a nasal, somewhat n-like quality.
The diaeresis – la diéresis
Diaereses are marks over some u’s that come up pretty infrequently. They look like the umlaut, a symbol in German and other languages that modifies vowel sounds.
Fun fact: The Atlantic, an English language publication, has used the diaeresis in words like cooperate (coöperate) and reelect (reëlect) to “indicate … that it forms a separate syllable.”
Before we explain the diaeresis, we should cover la g (lah HEH), the letter g in Spanish.
La g, the letter “g” in Spanish
Just like in English, the Spanish g can have different sounds depending on the vowel(s) following it. Hard g’s sound like the g in “gum” and “grass,” whereas soft g’s typically sound like the h in “hair” and “hello.” In some Spanish-speaking regions, this g sound has a raspier, more guttural quality, a sound commonly associated with German, Arabic, and Hebrew — think the -ch sound at the end of “Bach.”
In Spanish, the g is consistently hard before a, o, and u and consistently soft before e and i. If the word requires a soft g sound before a, o, or u, opt for a j instead of a g. If the word requires a hard g sound before an e or an i, you must insert a silent u.
One last rule, and here’s where diaeresis comes in: if you want a hard g sound AND a u sound together — like the sound in the names Gwen or Gwyneth — you must include the diaeresis over the u. This phenomenon comes up frequently in conjugations of verbs ending in –guar, such as aguar (to water down, dilute) and averiguar (to discover, find out).
These rules are explained with examples in the following table:
Why do accent marks matter in Spanish?
If you’re a native English speaker — or speaker of any language that doesn’t use accent marks — you may think of Spanish accent marks as accessories, fun symbols adorning certain letters without rhyme or reason.
While you can get by without using accent marks, you’ll avoid hilarious, even embarrassing lexical mix-ups, some of which are explained below.
Esta vs. está
Esta (EH-stah) is a demonstrative pronoun that replaces a singular feminine noun or a demonstrative adjective describing a singular feminine noun. Esta has no accent, but that doesn’t mean it has no stressed syllable. When there’s no written accent mark on a word ending in a vowel, -s, or -n, the stressed syllable is the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable. In this two-syllable word, the penultimate syllable is also the first syllable, of course.
Está (eh-STAH) is the present tense, third person singular conjugation of the verb estar (to be). It has a written accent over the second vowel, indicating that the speaker should move the stress from the first syllable to the second. Below is a short dialogue including both esta and está.
María: La biblioteca está al lado del parque municipal. (The library is by the municipal park.)
José: ¿Y la librería? (And the bookstore?)
María: Esta está ubicada en la calle principal. (It/this is located on the main street.)
Another fun fact: until recently, there was a third version of this word: ésta. This version acted as the demonstrative pronoun replacing a singular feminine noun, like how esta replaced la librería in the dialogue above. The Real Academia Española, the official body in charge of standardizing the Spanish language, decided — decreed, really — that this third version wasn’t necessary: other elements of the sentence usually provide enough context to determine whether the word is serving as a pronoun or adjective.
El carné vs. la carne
El carné is a license or identification card. This comes from the French carnet (car-NEH), so we have to write the accent above the e to stress the second syllable in Spanish just as it’s stressed in the original French.
La carne, pronounced CAR-neh, though, is meat or flesh — super different! The accent mark means that these words look only a bit different on the page, but when spoken, they sound quite distinct.
Luckily, the words have different grammatical genders — carné is masculine and carne is feminine — helping us distinguish between them.
El año vs. el ano
El año is the year and el ano is an…unseemly body part. Many Spanish students learn this the hard way when they’re called to the whiteboard to write the date and forget the tilde.
Other Spanish words for which accents matter
Interestingly, there are many words whose pronunciation in Spanish is unaffected by the presence or absence of an accent mark. These accent marks are placed in the position of the word’s default stress, making them redundant as far as the sound of the word is concerned.
However, these examples are reminiscent of the now defunct ésta vs. esta distinction mentioned above: the presence or absence of the accent mark indicates which version of the word is intended.
Some common examples are outlined in the table below. Qué vs. que and dónde vs. donde are important, representative examples: question words require accents whereas their statement counterparts lose their accents.
Typing Spanish accent marks
Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and Mac computers all have features that allow you to insert special characters that don’t appear on the English keyboard. This is the easiest way to type Spanish accent marks.
In Google Docs, click “Insert”, then “Special Characters.” Two drop-down menus and a grid of symbols will pop up. Select “Latin” from the first drop-down menu, and then select the accented letter you want to type from the Spanish keyboard symbols chart.
In Microsoft Word, also start by clicking “Insert,” then “Symbol.” A grid of symbols will pop up. If the one you’re looking for is not on there, click “More Symbols” at the bottom.
You’ll see two drop-down menus and a grid. Select “Basic Latin” from the second drop-down menu, select the accented letter you want to type from the grid, and click “Insert.”
Here’s how to type Spanish accent marks on Mac: start by clicking “Edit” in the menu bar. Then choose “Special Characters” and select “Roman” from the drop-down menu. Next, select the “Accented Latin” character palette. Then, click the character you want to type, and hit “Insert”.
Spanish accent mark shortcuts for PC
Sustained key press
To enter these codes for Spanish accent marks, use a sustained key press: press each key one at a time, holding them until all the keys in the sequence are pressed (note: don’t type the “+” symbol).
Acento ortográfico (á, é, í, ó, ú): Press CTRL+‘ (apostrophe), followed by the letter.
Diéresis (ü): Press CTRL + Shift + ; followed by U.
Tilde (ñ): Press CTRL + Shift + ~ (tilde), followed by N.
If these codes don’t work on your computer, try these Windows ALT codes instead:
á: ALT + 0225
é: ALT + 0233
í: ALT + 0237
ñ: ALT + 0241
ó: ALT + 0243
ú: ALT + 0250
ü: ALT + 0252
Á: ALT + 0193
É: ALT + 0201
Í: ALT + 0205
Ñ: ALT + 0209
Ó: ALT + 0211
Ú: ALT + 0218
Ü: ALT + 0220
Spanish accent mark shortcuts for Mac
You can type Spanish accents on an Apple device with Option Key Accents codes and KeyCaps.
Spanish keyboard shortcuts
Accento ortográfico (á, é, í, ó, ú): Press Option + E followed by the vowel you need.
Diéresis (ü): Press Option + U followed by the letter U again.
Tilde (ñ): Press Option + N followed by the letter N again.
To use KeyCaps to type Spanish accent marks, click on the little Apple logo on the top left side of your screen. Next, open KeyCaps. A little keyboard will appear on the screen. Hold down the Option key until a series of accent marks appears.
Click on the accent mark you wish to type, then type the letter that it modifies.
For example, if you wanted to type é, click `, and then type the E.
Accent mark shortcuts for mobile devices
For iPhone, Android, and tablet keyboards, hold down any letter, and tons of accent options will appear (with cool non-Spanish accents, as well).
(In a nutshell, if you want to type “e” with an accent, hold down the “E” key for a moment, and you’ll see these options pop up above the letter E: è é ê ë ē ĕ ė ę ě and ə. Just click the one you’re looking for, and keep on typing.)
Typing Spanish accent marks in Linux
There are two options for typing accent marks in a Linux operating system: Character Palette and Compose Key.
To use the character palette, right-click on the top bar and choose “Add to Panel”. Then, click “Character Palette”.
To insert the accent mark you’re looking for, left-click it, which will copy the accent mark to your clipboard. Just use Ctrl + V (Paste) to place it in a word or sentence.
To use the Compose Key, you have to first designate an unused key as the Compose Key by following this click sequence:
Control Center > Accessibility Options > Keyboard Properties > Options > Compose Key option
Once the key is designated, hold down your Compose Key, followed by the letter and the accent mark, to place the symbol.
Here are some examples:
To type é, the sequence is compose key, E, ‘.
To type ó, the sequence is compose key, O, ‘.
To type ü, the sequence is compose key, U, “.
International Keyboard add-ons for Spanish accent marks
Another option for typing Spanish accents on Windows and Mac is to add an alternate keyboard layout.
Reconfiguring your keyboard to the Spanish keyboard can lead to confusion because some keys are moved around and labeled differently. For example, the semicolon to the right of the letter L is swapped to the Ñ, and punctuation marks are rearranged, too.
To type acento ortográfico (á, é, í, ó, ú): type ‘ (single quote, which is now in the position of the open bracket ‘[‘), followed by the vowel you need.
To type tildes (ñ): hit the Ñ, where the semicolon used to be.
To type diéresis (ü): type “ (shift + ‘, which is in the position of the open bracket ‘[‘), followed by U.
Here are the instructions for enabling your new Spanish keyboard on Mac and Windows operating systems:
Enabling a Mac international keyboard
Go to System Preferences and click on “International.” Select the “Input Menu” tab, and scroll down to select “Spanish – ISO.” In the toolbar between your battery percentage and time, there should be a flag indicating the layout of the keyboard you’re currently using. Press on the flag to reveal and switch between your saved keyboards.
Enabling a Windows international keyboard
Open the Control Panel. Under “Clock, Language, and Region,” click “Change input methods” and click “Options” to the right of your language. Click “Add an Input Method” and scroll down to Spanish. Click the + symbol next to it, then select the layout you prefer.
No matter which method you find most convenient, you’ll be ready to type in Spanish whether you’re texting a friend or writing the next great novel. To practice Spanish accent rules and avoid accent-related mix-ups like the ones mentioned in this article, remember to book lessons with an experienced Spanish tutor.