Spanish accent marks – Rules and practice

Welcome to our grammar lesson about Spanish accent marks (also called “tildes”).

Accent marks or “tildes” are these little marks we see on some Spanish words: ´

Only vowels can have accent marks. When they do, they look like this: á, é, í, ó, ú (or, when capitalized: Á, É, Í, Ó, Ú)

In this lesson, we will learn the rules to decide if a word should have an accent mark after hearing it.

Then we will put those rules into practice with some words, and also provide you with a Quiz and an Exercise to practice yourself.


Note: The rules we will learn first don’t apply to question words such as “qué”, “dónde”, etc.

They also don’t apply to monosyllables (words with only one syllable).

But don’t worry: at the end of the lesson, we have included two additional sections about those types of words.


Strong and weak vowels

There are two types of vowels in Spanish: strong and weak. This is important for accent marks, as we will see.

Strong vowels are a, e, o and weak vowels are i, u :

Strong vowels "a, e, o" and weak vowels "i, u".

This division is important for Accent Rules we will learn next.

Rules for accent marks

If we hear a Spanish word and we want to know if we should write it with an accent mark, we need to follow 3 steps: 

Step 1 – Number the word’s syllables

We need to number the syllables from right to left.

Numbering syllables can get tricky when two vowels appear together (or with just an “h” between them). The following box explains what to do in that case:

Numbering syllables when 2 vowels appear together (or with just an “h” between them):

Here are the different possibilities:

If the two vowels are weak, then they belong to the same syllable.

If the two vowels are strong, then they belong to different syllables.

If one vowel is weak and the other is strong, we need to consider the following:

  • If the stress of the whole word falls on the weak vowel, then they belong to different syllables and, more importantly… the weak vowel must have an accent mark! So we can write the accent mark and SKIP THE REST OF THE PROCESS! 🙂
  • If the stress of the whole word falls on the strong vowel, they belong to the same syllable.


Step 2 – Identify the stressed syllable

Hear the word again 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.

We need to apply a different rule depending on where the stressed vowel is:

If the stressed vowel is in syllable 1…

… then the stressed vowel needs an accent mark only if the word ends in “n”, “s”, or vowel.

If the stressed vowel is in syllable 2…

… then the stressed vowel needs an accent mark only if the word ends in any letter that is NOT “n”, “s” or vowel.

If the stressed vowel is in syllable 3 or higher…

… then the stressed vowel always needs an accent mark.


Examples

Now let’s put the rules into practice.

Here is a list of 6 words. Some are written correctly, but others should have an accent mark:

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

We will hear each word and follow the steps to decide whether it should have an accent mark:

arroz

Step 1: Number the syllables

– The word has 2 syllables:

arroz
21

Step 2: Identify the stressed syllable

We hear the word and realize the stress is 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 “z”.

– So no need for an accent mark.

Solution: arroz


Fernandez

Step 1: Number the syllables

– The word has 3 syllables:

Fernandez
321

Step 2: Identify the stressed syllable

We hear the word and realize the stress is 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 “z”.

– So we need an accent mark on the stressed vowel, “a”.

Solution: Fernández


mesa

Step 1: Number the syllables

– The word has 2 syllables:

mesa
21

Step 2: Identify the the stressed syllable

We hear the word and realize the stress is 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.

– So no need for an accent mark.

Solution: mesa


vivia

Step 1: Number the syllables

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

– One vowel is weak, the other is strong.

– We hear the word, and realize the stress of the whole word falls on the weak vowel, “i”.

In this case, we can skip the rest of the process: we need an accent mark on the “i”.

Solution:  vivía


despues

Step 1: Number the syllables

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

– One vowel is weak, the other is strong.

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

– That means “pues” is just one syllable.

– We can now confidently number the syllables:

despues
21

Step 2: Identify the the stressed syllable

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

Step 3: Apply the proper rule and decide

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

– The word ends in “s”.

So we need an accent mark on the stressed syllable, “e”.

Solution:  después


simpatico

Step 1: Number the syllables

– The word has 4 syllables:

simpatico
4321

Step 2: Identify the the stressed syllable

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

Step 3: Apply the proper rule and decide

– We apply the rule for words stressed on syllable 3: they all need an accent mark on the stressed vowel (in this case, “a”).

Solution: simpático

Practice

Quiz

Take this short Quiz to practice accent marks with a few more words:



Exercise

A few more words!

Try to decide if these words should have an accent mark. Then check the solutions.

(We have highlighted the stressed vowel in black):

detras
sorpresa
triangulo
serpiente
magnifico
lio
reo
traidor

Israel
ahinco
comi
habil
reunion
angel
Dario
salud

Solutions

detrás
sorpresa
triángulo
serpiente
magnífico
lío
reo
traidor

Israel
ahínco
comí
hábil
reunión
ángel
Darío
salud

Accents on question words

Question words such as “¿qué?” or “¿dónde?” have an accent mark when they play an interrogative role.

Here is the list of question words:

  • dónde (where)
  • adónde (to where)
  • cómo (how)
  • cuál (which one)
  • cuáles (which ones)
  • cuándo (when)
  • cuánto/a/s (how much, how many)
  • qué (what)
  • quién (who, singular)
  • quiénes (who, plural)


Let’s take “dónde” and “qué” as examples, and read some sentences where they have an accent mark and some sentences where they don’t:

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 interrogative, because someone is wondering where the glasses are)

Este es el lugar donde pongo mis gafas.
This is the place where I put my glasses. (no interrogative role)


qué:

¿Qué quieres?
What do you want? (interrogative role)

Ellos me preguntan qué quiero.
They ask me what I want. (although there are no question marks, the role is interrogative)

Esta es la casa que he comprado.
This is the house that I’ve bought. (no interrogative role)

Accents on monosyllables

Monosyllables (one-syllable words) in general don’t have accent marks.

However, there are a few exceptions to this rule:

Some monosyllables can have different meanings. Depending on their meaning in a specific sentence, they will or will not have an accent mark:

With accent markWithout accent mark
form of the verb "dar"deof
élheelthe
másmoremasbut
memimy
form of the verb "ser" or "saber"sepersonal pronoun
yes / himself / herselfsiif
teatepersonal pronoun
youtuyour