Accent Marks in Spanish (“Tildes”). Rules and Examples

Every word in Spanish has a melody to it.

An element that plays a key role in that melody is the “tilde”, the accent mark that you see on a vowel in many Spanish words.

In this post, we are going to imagine a situation in which we hear a word and try to write it correctly, deciding if it should have an accent mark.


Important: The process we are going to learn doesn’t apply to Interrogative words such as «qué», «dónde», etc. It also doesn’t apply to monosyllables (words consisting on just one syllable). At the end of this post, you will learn about Accent Marks on those types of words.





Deciding if a word has an Accent Mark after hearing it

We need to follow these 3 steps: 

Step 1. Number the word’s syllables.

Step 2. Identify the syllable that sounds stressed

Step 3. Apply the proper rule and decide

Now we will go into detail for each step. After the explanation, we will put the method into practice with a few words, and decide which ones should have an accent mark.


Step 1. Number the word’s syllables

We count the words syllables and number them from right to left.

Counting syllables is pretty easy. However, it can get trickier when two vowels appear together.

When two vowels appear together

If none of the vowels is “i” or “u”, each vowel belong to different syllables.

If the two vowels are one “i” and one “u”, then they belong to the same syllable.

If one of the vowels is “i” or “u”, and the other isn’t, now we have to consider this:

  • If the stress of the whole word falls on the “i” or “u”, then each vowel belong to different syllables and, more importantly, the “i” or “u” in question will have an accent! So you can skip the rest of the steps and write the accent mark!
  • If the stress of the whole word does not fall on the “i” or “u”, both vowels belong to the same syllable.


Step 2. Identify the vowel that sounds stressed

Hear the word and pay attention to its melody. Try to identify the vowel that sounds stressed and the syllable it belongs to.


Step 3. Apply the proper rule and decide

This is the final step. After we have identified the vowel that sounds stressed, we need to apply a rule, depending on what syllable that vowel belongs to.


– If the stressed vowel belongs to syllable 1:

In this case, the stressed vowel will have an accent mark only if the word ends in «n», «s», or vowel.


– If the stressed vowel belongs to syllable
2:

In this case, we apply the opposite rule: the stressed vowel will have an accent mark only if the word DOESN’T end in “n”, “s” or vowel.


– If the stressed vowel belongs to syllable
3 or higher:

In this case, the stressed vowel ALWAYS has an accent mark.




Examples

Now it’s time to put the method into practice. We will do it with the following words, and decide which ones should have an accent mark:

  • despues
  • arroz
  • vivia
  • mesa
  • Fernandez
  • simpatico

Let’s run each word through our process, one by one:

despues

Step 1: Number the syllables

– There are two vowels together, so we need to think a bit:

– One of them is “i” or “u”, and the other isn’t.

– We hear the word, and realize the stress of the whole word doesn’t fall on the u.

– That means: “pues” is just one syllable, not two.

– We can now number the syllables:

despues
21

Step 2: Identify the syllable that sounds stressed

We hear the word again and realize the word is stressed on syllable 1, more specifically on the “e” of the syllable “pues”.

Step 3: Apply the proper rule and decide

– We apply the rule for words stressed on syllable 1.

– The word ends in the letter “s”.

– That means it has an accent mark!

– The accent mark will be on the “e”, the stressed vowel.

Verdict:  después. 

arroz

Step 1: Number the syllables

– The word has 2 syllables.

arroz
21

Step 2: Identify the syllable that sounds stressed

We hear the word and realize the word is stressed on syllable 1.

Step 3: Apply the proper rule and decide

– We apply the rule for words stressed on syllable one.

– The word ends in the letter “z”.

– That means it doesn’t have an accent mark.

Verdict: arroz.

vivia

Step 1: Number the syllables

– There are two vowels together, so we need to think a bit:

– One of them is “i” or “u”, and the other isn’t.

– We hear the word, and realize the stress of the whole word falls on the i.

In that case, we don’t need to continue the process: there will be an accent mark on the “i”.

Verdict:  vivía. 

mesa

Step 1: Number the syllables

– The word has 2 syllables.

mesa
21

Step 2: Identify the syllable that sounds stressed

We hear the word and realize the word is stressed on syllable 2.

Step 3: Apply the proper rule and decide

– We apply the rule for words stressed on syllable 2.

– The word ends in a vowel.

– That means it doesn’t have an accent mark.

Verdict: mesa.

Fernandez

Step 1: Number the syllables

– The word has 3 syllables.

Fernandez
321

Step 2: Identify the syllable that sounds stressed

We hear the word and realize the word is stressed on syllable 2.

Step 3: Apply the proper rule and decide

– We apply the rule for words stressed on syllable 2.

– The word ends in a “z”.

– That means it has an accent mark!

Verdict: Fernández.

simpatico

Step 1: Number the syllables

– The word has 4 syllables.

simpatico
4321

Step 2: Identify the syllable that sounds stressed

We hear the word and realize the word is stressed on syllable 3.

Step 3: Apply the proper rule and decide

– We apply the rule for words stressed on syllable 3: they all have an accent mark on the stressed vowel!

Verdict: simpático.




Accent Marks on Monosyllables

Monosyllables (one-syllable words) in general don’t have an accent mark. However, there are exceptions to this rule. 

The reason is some monosyllables have several different meanings. They are written with or without an accent mark depending on their meaning in that sentence. 

Here is the table of those monosyllables, their meaning when they have an accent and their meaning when they don’t:

Without accent markWith accent mark
de"of"form of verb "give"
el"the"él"he"
mas"but"más"more"
mi"my""me"
sepersonal pronounform of verb "to be" and "to know"
si"if""yes" / "himself"
tepersonal pronoun"tea"
tu"your""you"

Accent Marks on Interrogative Words

Words such as «¿qué?» or «¿dónde?» have an accent mark when they are working as interrogative words. 

However, don’t forget that these words work sometimes as relative pronouns or connectors with no interrogative role. In that case, they don’t have the accent mark. 

Here is the list of interrogative words:

  • adónde
  • cómo
  • cuál
  • cuáles
  • cuándo
  • cuánto/a/s
  • dónde
  • qué
  • quién
  • quiénes

Let’s take as examples the words «dónde» and «qué». We will present some sentences in which these words either have or don’t have an accent mark, depending on their meaning:

Dónde

¿Dónde estás? = Where are you? (Interrogative role)

No sé dónde tengo mis gafas = I don’t know where I have my glasses (although there are no question marks, the role is still interrogative, because someone is wondering where the glasses are)

Esta es el sitio donde puse mis gafas = This is the place where I put my glasses (no interrogative word, here «donde» is a relative pronoun, mere connector of the words «sitio» and «puse»)

Qué

¿Qué quieres? = What do you want? (Interrogative role)

Me preguntó qué sabía = He asked me what I knew (although there are no question marks, the role is still interrogative, because someone is wondering)

Esta es la casa que he comprado = This is the house that I’ve bought (no interrogative word, here «que» is a relative pronoun, mere connector of the words «casa» and «he comprado»)

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