Accent Marks and Special Characters in Spanish

     

Read Spanish for any length of time and you'll notice that many words include accent marks. These are not different or unique letters but rather visual cues letting us know how to pronounce a word (and they're sometimes used to distinguish one word from another spelled the same way).

Before you start complaining that accent marks make Spanish needlessly complicated, remember that the vast majority of the time, you know exactly how to pronounce a word just by looking at it. The same cannot be said of English which doesn't give the reader any clues about pronunciation (consider the words "content" or "defense," — they are pronouced in different ways based on the context). English speakers learn how to pronounce words through practice and repetition.

The rules regarding accent marks are fairly simple: First of all, only a vowel can be accented: á, é, í, ó, ú (y is not considered a vowel for the purposes of accents). If you find yourself writing an accent over an "n" or a "b" something is very, very wrong. Secondly, a word does not necessarily need an accent mark, and a word may never have more than one accent.

So why do some words have accents? And how do you know when to write one?

When to Use Accent Marks

Accent marks have to do with stress, that is, which syllable in the word is emphasized. Consider this English word:

elephant

The first of the three syllables (the "el") is stressed. Try pronouncing "elephant" stressing a different syllable. Sounds pretty weird, doesn't it?

Helpful Rhyme:
"Vowel, n, or s, the second-to-last is stressed."

If there isn't a written accent mark, every Spanish word that ends in a vowel, an "-n," or an "-s" has the stress fall on the second-to-last syllable (the "penultimate" syllable):

manzana
comen
problemas

Every other word (words ending in a consonant other than "-n" or "-s") has the stress fall on the last syllable (the "ultimate" syllable):

felicidad
comer
multicultural

Note: Many singular words with accents lose their accents when they become plural:
calcetín calcetines due to the addition of an extra syllable ending in "s."

Some words gain accents when they become plural: examen exámenes.

But rules are made to be broken, so when we want to stress a syllable other than the one we should be stressing, we use an accent mark:

inglés
co
árbol

The word inglés ends in an "s" so normally we'd emphasize the second-to-last syllable (the "in") but the accent mark tells us to stress the ("glés") instead. Comí ends in a vowel but an accent mark tells us to stress the last syllable rather than the second-to-last. Árbol ends in an "l" so we'd normally be emphasizing the last syllable, but the accent mark tells us to stress the first syllable instead.

If the stress falls on anything other than the penultimate or ultimate syllables there must be an accent mark used.

More Uses for Accent Marks

Accent Marks and Question Words

Interrogative words all have accents:

¿Quién? ¿Qué? ¿Dónde? ¿Cuándo? ¿Por qué? ¿Cómo? ¿Cuál? ¿Cuánto?

These accent marks don't actually change the pronunciation but help keep the question words separate from the words that are used to answer them:

—¿Dónde lo enconstraste?
—Where did you find it?

—Donde se venden revistas.
—Where they sell magazines.

—¿Cuándo miras television?
—When do you watch television?

—Cuando tengo tiempo.
—When I have time.

Accent Marks and Homonyms

There are a number of homonyms (words that sound the same but have different meanings) in Spanish that also use the same spelling. Even though there isn't any other reason to do so, accent marks are used to differentiate the two words. Some examples:

  • el (meaning "the") compared to él (meaning "he")
  • que (meaning "that") compared to qué (meaning "what")
  • se (the reflexive pronoun) compared to (meaning "I know")
  • si (meaning "if") compared to (meaning "yes")
  • te (the object pronoun "you") compared to (meaning "tea")
  • tu (meaning "your") compared to (meaning "you")

Accent Marks and Conjugations

Accent marks also become particularly important when dealing with verb conjugations. Certain present tense conjugations would be identical to their preterite

present tense:

escucho

I listen

preterite tense:

escuchó

he listened

Some imperfect subjunctive and the future tense conjugations could also be confused without accent marks:

future tense:

escuchará

he will listen

imperfect subj.:

...si escuchara

...if he listened

Accent Marks and Attaching Pronouns

Using object pronouns can force us to add accent marks. The three situations where we can add a pronoun to the end of a verb are with infinitives, present participles, and affirmative commands. In each case we're adding an extra syllable (or two) to the end of a word. This would likely alter the pronunciation if we don't add an accent mark to where the stress originally fell:

 

without pronoun:

with pronoun(s):

infinitive:

mandar

mandármelo

present participle:

mandando

mandándolo

affirmative command:

manda

mándalo

But adding a syllable doesn't always require adding an accent mark:

dar → darlo

Accent Marks and Diphthongs

Accent marks are also occasionally used to break-up syllables in words which would otherwise be shorter. These words contain something called a "diphthong."

What on earth is a "diphthong?" It's a combination of two vowels that blend together when spoken to create one new sound. The following words all have diphthongs:

hablais
bien
cuaderno

Hablais is pronounced like "ob-lice" because the "a" and the "i" blend together. Bien is a one syllable word pronounced like "byen." And the first syllable of cuaderno is pronounced like "quad" rather than "coo-ad" because the "u" and the "a" blend together.

Sometimes we don't want letters to blend together so we break-up the diphthong with an accent mark:

ps
sonrr
herna

País is a two-syllable word thanks to the accent mark. Sonreír (and other "-eír" verbs) needs an accent on the "-ir" ending so it's pronounced like "son-ray-ear" and not "son-rare." Heroina is isn't pronounced "air-oy-na," but rather "air-o-ee-na" due to the accent mark.

Strong Vowel, Weak Vowel

How can you tell if two vowels form a diphthong? It has to do with their strength. In Spanish the letters "a," "e," and "o" are considered strong vowels. Two strong vowels repel each other, breaking into separate syllables. The weak vowels "i" and "u" (and sometimes "y") blend easily with other vowels to form one-syllable diphthongs.

strong / strong (2 syllables):

caos, caer, leen, tarea, zoo

strong / weak (diphthong):

aire, causa, deuda, hay, seis

weak / weak (diphthong):

ciudad, fui, fluidez, ruido, viuda

Adding an accent mark is a way of turning a weak vowel into a strong one.

Note: It may be very hard to hear separate syllables when someone is speaking Spanish, especially if they are speaking quickly.

Notes

  • Remember, accent marks are only used on vowels. (And "y" doesn't count as a vowel as far as accent marks are concerned.)
  • The accent mark is more accurately known as an "acute accent." In Spanish it should be drawn from the lower left to the upper right, above the letter.
  • Not all words need accent marks; words that do have accent marks will have only one.
  • If a syllable other than the last or second-to-last is stressed, the word must have an accent mark.
  • There are some exceptions to the Spanish accent rules. Words that have migrated to Spanish from English often keep the English (non-accented) spellings. For example, Internet and sandwich should have accent marks (Ínternet and sándwich) but they don't.
  • Oftentimes in Spanish, capital letters which should be accented are not. This might motivate you to write everything in capital letters and forget the accent marks, but it's still not grammatically correct.

Special Characters in Spanish

Other than the accent marks there are four other characters that are not found in the English language: ñ, ü, ¡ and ¿

A tilde (~) is what is used to distinguish an "ñ" from an "n." While adding a tilde to an "n" may remind you of adding accent marks to vowels, the ñ "n." It is also not considered an accented letter.

Note: Accent marks, the tilde, and the dieresis are known as "diacritical marks."

Occasionally we need to use a dieresis (two dots) on top of the "u" to change its pronunciation when it follows the letter "g." Normally the "u" is silent, but when a dieresis is used it tells us to pronounce the "gu" combination like "gw." Some examples: pingüino (penguin); vergüenza (shame); and nicaragüense (Nicaraguan).

The upside-down exclamation and question marks simply precede any sentence that ends with one. It can be helpful when reading to know at the beginning of the sentence whether it's a question or an exclamation.

¡Qué buena idea!
What a good idea!

Rodrigo, ¿dónde estás?
Rodrigo, where are you?

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