Spanish Accent Marks – Rules and Practice with Example Words

Welcome to our fun lesson about Spanish Accent Marks 🙂

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 we can see on a vowel in some words.

In this lesson, we will learn how to decide if a word we just heard should or shouldn’t have an accent mark. After explaining the process, we will put it into practice with example words. Also, at the end there is a short Quiz to test your knowledge.


Important: The process we are going to learn first doesn’t apply to Interrogative words such as “qué”, “dónde”, etc. It also doesn’t apply to monosyllables (words consisting on just one syllable). But don’t worry! At the end of this lesson, there are separate sections about accent marks on those specific types of words.


Introduction: Strong and Weak Vowels

To understand the process we are going to follow, first we need to divide Spanish vowels in two groups: strong and weak. This will help us count the syllables of a word.

The strong vowels are “a, e, o” and the weak vowels are “i, u”:

A graphic with two circles, one for strong vowels "a, e, o" and one for weak vowels "i,u"

Process to decide if a word should have an accent mark: 3 Steps

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


— Step 1. Number the word’s syllables

We need to count the word’s syllables and number them from right to left.

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

Numbering syllables when 2 vowels appear together

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 of the vowels is weak and the other is strong, then 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, then the weak vowel must have an accent mark! So we can write the accent mark and SKIP THE REST OF THE PROCESS! 🙂
  • Otherwise, they belong to the same syllable.


— Step 2. Identify the stressed syllable—

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

Don’t worry if at the beginning you can’t clearly hear which vowel sounds stressed, that is very normal for Spanish learners. Eventually, with practice, it will become easier and easier.


— 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 must have an accent mark only if the word ends in “n”, “s”, or vowel.


If the stressed vowel belongs to syllable 2:

Then the stressed vowel must 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 must have an accent mark.

Example words: Which ones should have an accent mark?

Now it’s time to put into practice the method we have explained.

Some of the following words should have an accent mark. Let’s imagine we hear them from someone and we are trying to write them properly.

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

For each word, we will follow our process and decide if (and where) they should have an accent mark. Let’s do it!

despues

Step 1: Number the syllables

– There are two vowels together, so we need to focus there for a moment:

– One of two vowels is weak, the other is strong.

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

– 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 must have an accent mark on the stressed vowel, “e”.

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 shouldn’t have an accent mark.

Verdict: arroz

vivia

Step 1: Number the syllables

– There are two vowels together, so we need to focus there for a moment:

– One of two vowels 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 that case, we can stop the process here: There needs to 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 the word doesn’t need any 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 must have an accent mark on the stressed vowel, “a”.

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 must have an accent mark on the stressed vowel (in this case, the “a”).

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 mark 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?” must have an accent mark when they are working as interrogative words. 

However, don’t forget that these words sometimes work as relative pronouns or connectors with no interrogative role. In that case, they don’t have an 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”, and give you some sentences in which they either have or don’t have an accent mark, depending on the specific role they play.

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 role, 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 role, here “que” is a relative pronoun, mere connector of the words “casa” and “he comprado”)


Practice: A Quiz

Take this short Quiz to test your knowledge about accent marks!:

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