Spanish spelling, (as opposed to its grammar) is almost always simple and logical. In particular, from hearing the pronunciation of a word, the appropriate place to put an accent is immediate, save in a few sporadic special cases.

In Spanish, there are only two types of accented vowels. The first one is "ü", called a diaeresis. (Not an umlaut as in German. Although it is the same symbol, it serves a very different purpose.) It is only employed in the syllables "güe" and "güi" when it is necessary to pronounce the "u". For example, the following words are not written with a diaeresis, so the "u" is silent (the English meanings included):

  • guitarra - guitar (ever wondered why the u is also silent in English?)
  • guerra - war
  • guirnalda - garland
  • guiso - dish

Contrariwise, if we need to pronounce these u's, we write a diaeresis:

  • güero - In Mexico, it means blond (male), but its meaning has been distorted into "Angloamerican", someone from either Canada or the USA.
  • agüero - literally, "waterer". It is a divination extracted from birds' flight.
  • antigüedad - antiquity
  • agüita - diminutive form of water.

This is very much like French. Consider the English acquisition "naïve", for example.

These are not, however, the most interesting aspect of Spanish accents, nor the most common. You may have probably noticed the proliferation of the accents á, é, í, ó, ú in Spanish writing. Every word can have exactly one of these accented vowels. It indicates the position of primary stress. The neat thing is that if you hear the pronunciation of the word paying careful attention to the stress, there are rules that tell you exactly where to place the corresponding accent. The real purpose of accents, of course, is to perform the opposite action: once you read a word, an accent or its absence thereof will tell you exactly how to pronounce the word and where to put the stress.

The rules were invented by the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (Real Academia de la Lengua Española) in order to include explicitly and unambiguously the stress of a word in writing, while at the same time, if you can believe it, rely on the morphology of Spanish to minimise as much as possible the usage of written accents. This is a good idea. In English, it might not seem as important to indicate in writing the stress of a word, as almost always the stress falls on the penultimate syllable if the word is short. Sometimes, though, it would be nice to know that it is pronounced "AL-geb-ra" and not "al-GEB-ra", as my Hungarian professor used to pronounce it.

Enough preamble. Here are the rules:

  1. If the word has the primary stress on the last syllable (called an oxytone), and it ends with "n", "s", or a vowel, the accent is written. No other oxytones have a written accent, excluding exceptional cases. Examples with accent : pasión (passion), limón (lime or lemon), inglés (English), Alá (Allah, the Arabian deity), Canadá. Examples without accent: internet (no accent, stress on last syllable), estar (one of the "to be" verbs in Spanish), beisbol (baseball), calor (heat, warmth), alcohol (alcohol. Remember, this has the stress on the last syllable!)
  2. If the word has the primary stress on the penultimate syllable (called a paroxytone), and it does NOT end with "n", "s", or a vowel, the accent is written. No other paroxytones have a written accent, excluding exceptional cases. Examples with accent: cárcel (jail), árbol (tree), González (a family name, but if written Gonzales, there is no accent.) Examples without an accent: ingles (groins, usually very different from "inglés"), libro (book), gato (cat), perro (dog).
  3. If the word has the the primary stress on any syllable before the penultimate syllable (called a proparoxytone), then the accent is written. There is no exception to this rule. Examples: América, México, Pacífico (peaceful, capitalised here in reference to the Pacific Ocean).

That's all! Only three rules, one for each kind of word. Ok, maybe some people think that this is even too much and that other languages get by without any accents at all. Perhaps so. A few rules and loss of simplicity is the price to pay for unambiguity in spelling and writing.

Ok, ok, I'm lying a bit. That's not really all. There are some more cases where an accent is needed, the so-called diacritical accent that is used to distinguish certain homophones. There are also a few extra rules concerning diphthongs *snicker*. Those will be covered in your advanced Spanish class. Or perhaps in another node.

Who Cares About Accents?!

The rules described above by the illustrious NeuRet are enough as general guidelines for when to put accents and when not to. There are various other rules set forth for placement of accents. Knowledge of these rules is necessary in order to fully conform to proper Spanish writing according to the opinion of the Royal Spanish Academy and the supporting Spanish academies in other countries.

Proper use of Spanish accents is a mark of finesse. Misplacement or complete absence altogether of all accents is the most common mistake in Spanish orthography. Only printed material that aspires to a certain high-brow respect, such as newspapers and literary magazines, adheres consistently to all the rules. In informal writing, such as the one proliferating in the internet, Spanish speakers very often omit all accents, and attempts to put accents into these contexts are viewed as unnecessary pedantry. This is understandable, because there are relatively few naturally-occurring situations where an accent or its absence can hinder or alter the understanding of a sentence.

"Hablo ingles." Pardon me? Is that English or Groins you Speak?

Nevertheless, rules are rules, and those Señoritas and Señores who wish to truly deserve these titles in writing would do well to follow the rules. To put it another way, nothing gives a better impression on a first date than a love note written on a napkin with all the accents in their proper place. Well, at least that would impress me.

Besides the three basic rules for oxytones, paroxytones, and proparoxytones as described above by NeuRet, there are five classes of rules that trump and complement the three basic rules.

  1. Monosyllable Rule: Even though they are oxytones, words of one syllable never need an accent, unless the accent is diacritic (discussed below).
  2. Hiatus Rule: The vowels "a", "e", and "o" are strong; "i" and "u" are weak. If a weak vowel is juxtaposed to a strong vowel and the primary stress falls on the weak vowel, then the weak vowel carries an accent, regardless of any other rule.
  3. Exclamatory, Interrogatory, and Demonstrative Diacritics: Exclamatory and interrogatory adverbs such as "¿Cómo?", (How?) "¿Cuándo?" (When?) "¿Dónde?" (Where?) carry an accent if they are being used interrogatively or exclamationally, and do not have an accent otherwise. Similarly, demonstrative adjectives "este" (this), "ese" (that), and "aquel" (that other one) do not carry accents if they are being used adjectivally, but do have an accent if they are being used as pronouns.
  4. Miscellaneous Diacritics: There are nine pairs of monosyllabic homonyms that are only distinguished by the placement of an accent, and they must be committed to memory. There are also two pairs of two-syllable words that need to be distinguished with a diacritic accent.
  5. The Small Print: Not another set of rules per se, but various picky tidbits about where and how to put accents that could be subsumed under the other rules given the proper interpretations. Mastery of the small print is truly the sign of an elite accent-placer.

Explanations and examples follow.

The Shortest Words

The monosyllable rule makes quite a bit of sense if we remember the spirit and philosophy of Spanish accents. Above all, Spanish accents' main purposes are to make sure that Spanish dictionaries never need pronounciation guides because Spanish orthography already encodes all the necessary information, and to minimise as much as possible the presence of written accents. Let phonology have the first word of where the accents should go, and let accents be written only to point out the select few words that somehow have the primary stress in an exotic syllable. Of course, dialects being what dialects are, people will still pronounce everything differently. Also, judging by how common complete absence of accents is in informal writing, it seems that some people believe any accents at all are too many accents already, but one can't deny that this quixotic quest for clarity and economy is a noble one indeed. 'Tis the Spanish way, my esteemed Sancho.

It seems clear, then, that in the spirit of efficiency and unambiguity, there really is no need for putting accents on monosyllables, because there is only one syllable for the primary stress to fall on, silly. Contrary to this alacrity is the unambiguity, and there are some words for, why, yes, it would be nice to know graphically that they are different words. That's where diacritics come in, to be discussed later.

This near ban of accents on monosyllables is a relatively recent one, introduced by the Royal Academy on 1959 in one of their publications. You might see it violated in earlier texts, where authors had a marked fondness for putting accents on specific monosyllable past tenses, such as "fué" (he was, or he went), "vió" (she saw), and "dió" (it gave). Please pay no heed to the barbaric ways of our linguistic ancestors; we have improved since.

Diphthongs, Triphthongs, and 'Thonglessness

I smell vowel play! Let us digress into Spanish phonology.

Spanish, like Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, Toki Pona, and other languages, has a five-vowel system. Each vowel symbol corresponds uniquely to a vowel sound, a peculiarity that few other languages adapted to the Roman alphabet exhibit (and a source of frustration for native Spanish speakers like I who have such a narrow vowel spectrum with which to try to emulate vowel systems in other languages). The letter "a" can be approximated by English "father", "e" by "bed", "i" by "seed", "o" by "road", and "u" by "loom", where the accuracy of the approximation depends on the dialect of English, with a posh Londoner accent possibly being the closest one, and for "road", stop pronouncing the vowel before your lips round into an "oo" sound. If it's not between two other vowels, "y" can also function as "i". Of these vowels, three are open, namely "a", "e", and "o", whereas "i" and "u" are closed, the terms referring to shape of your mouth when you pronounce them. Many old-fashioned grammar books refer to the open vowels as strong vowels, and the closed ones as weak. To this tradition I shall adhere.

The point is that for spelling purposes (the real details can get a little sticky and vary from dialect to dialect and speaker to speaker) a Spanish diphthong or triphthong must include an unstressed weak vowel. That means that two strong vowels together do not form a diphthong and therefore belong to different syllables. So, for example, highlighting the stressed syllables, the syllabification would be "a-or-ta" (the artery on your heart), "le-er" (to read), and "ve-o" (I see), but "fluir" (to flow), "reir" (to laugh), and "a-juar" (dowry). I emphasise that these syllabifications are convention for spelling's sake. Most speakers of Spanish would almost always pronounce "leer" as a single syllable without bothering to put the hiatus between the two e's that the Royal Academy recommends. If they are being careful about their pronounciation, however, for emphasis they might pronounce the second "e" at a higher tone or put a glottal stop between them. Depending on a number of parameters, such as dialect or even the position of the word within a sentence, some speakers might also pronounce "fluir" as "flu-ir", or the same speaker might hesitate between pronouncing it as one syllable or two. Regardless, for spelling purposes, the two weak vowels always form a diphthong.

What is most important for us is that a stressed weak vowel with a strong vowel doesn't form a diphthong, and this fact has to be reflected orthographically with an accent. This is the hiatus rule, so-called because the two juxtuposed syllables belong to different syllables. Here are some examples (with syllabification included):

  • -a (day)
  • in-cre-í-ble (incredible)
  • a-ta-úd(coffin)
  • re-í-a (she laughed, imperfect past tense)

Also note that a hiatus affects the syllable count of a word. Sometimes a word will have an accent according to the three basic rules because of how the syllabification goes according to the hiatus. Examples:

  • ar--re-o(about trees) Proparoxytone
  • ba-ca-la-o (a kind of fish) Paroxytone ending in vowel, no accent
  • Ja-én (a town in Andalusía) Oxytone ending with "n".

It may very well happen that a stressed syllable contains a diphthong, but only if the stress falls on a strong vowel or if the diphthong is formed by two weak vowels. In that case, the accent falls on the strong vowel according to the three general rules, if it is necessary, or on the second weak vowel. The same applies to the relatively more rare triphthongs, which in Spanish are always formed by a strong vowel surrounded by two weak vowels. Triphthongs are relatively rare in Spanish, but more common as compared to other languages. For example:

  • náu-ti-co (nautical) Proparoxytone.
  • mur-cié-la-go (bat, the winged mammal) Another proparoxytone.
  • lin-güís-ti-ca (linguistics) Yet another proparoxytone. Note that the accent goes on the second weak vowel and that the diaeresis indicates a diphthong.
  • miau (cat onomatopeia) No accent, since it's a monosyllable with a triphthong.
  • a-pa-ci-güéis (to appease, plural second person present subjunctive used only in Spain) Oxytone ending in "s". Note the diaeresis indicates a triphthong in the last syllable.
  • lim-piáis (to clean, plural second person present indicative used only in Spain) Another oxytone ending in "s".

That's about everything there is to know about the hiatus rule. I know that it seems a little complicated at times. In reality, the number of clauses pertinent to this rule are small and can be mastered with practice. Let us move on to the other rules.

¿Is that a Question or a Statement, m'hijito?

The diacritic accent in Spanish is used to distinguish a few classes of homonyms that occupy different syntactic places in a sentence. The diacritic accent falls on the position of primary stress, as always, but not by virtue of the three basic rules, but simply to indicate that this word is being used in a specific way in the sentence. I shall now talk about the diacritic accent used for interrogative adverbs and demonstrative adjectives.

The adverbs

  • "¿Qué?" (What?),
  • "¿Por qué?" (Why?),
  • ¿Cómo?" (How?),
  • "¿Cuándo?" (When?)
  • "¿Dónde?" (Where?),
  • "¿Adónde?" (Where to?),
  • "¿Quién?" (Who? or whom?),
  • "¿Cuánto?" (How much?),
  • "¿Cuál?" (Which?),
  • and "¡Cuán!" (shortening of "cuánto", when used exclamationally)

carry an accent on their stressed syllable when they are being used as questions, as above, and do not when they are being used declaratively. Think of questions and exclamations as being more emphatic than declarations. Beware, however. Although the punctuation of a sentence may give some indication to the usage of these adverbs in a sentence, it doesn't have the last word on the matter. For example:

¡Cómo me gustaría acentuar tan bien como tú! (How I would like to place accents as well as you do!)

The first "¡Cómo!" has an accent because it is being used exclamationally; in a sense it is the nucleus of the exclamation. The second "como" isn't part of the exclamation, but rather forms part of the clause "acentuar tan bien como tú" (to place accents as well as you do), and therefore does not have an accent. The converse can also happen, as you can also embed questions and exclamations inside declarative sentences. Fr'instance:

Quiero saber cómo lo haces. (I want to know how do you do it.)

Notice that in the English translation there is the give-away "do" in front of "you" that indicates a question, even though there is no question mark and the sentence is declaratory. In these indirect instances, the adverbs are also being used interrogatively and therefore need an accent. The linguistically inclined (and if you've read this far into this writeup, I'd like to believe that includes you, my esteemed reader) can have lots of fun drawing parsing trees of Spanish sentences to determine exactly whý, whén, and hów these adverbs carry an accent.

Now let us move on to the demonstrative adjectives. These are easier to differentiate from their unaccented counterparts.

This Live Nude Lesbian or Thát One Over There?

The words "este" (this), "ese" (that), and "aquel" (that other) along with their feminines and plurals can function either as demonstrative adjectives or pronouns. When they are pronouns, they carry an accent, but they do not if they are adjectives. In English, the pronominal use is indicated by putting a "one" after the corresponding demonstrative (you can also use them pronominally as "Thís is the coolest thing ever"). In Spanish, you'll observe the pronominal use when the word stands by itself without being the determiner of a noun phrase. Thus, "Este gato loco" (This crazy cat), but "El gato loco es éste" (The crazy cat is thís one.) Of course, pronouns being what pronouns are, they can occur in a direct object, in the subject of a sentence, or elsewhere, such as "Éstas son mis lesbianas en vivo desnudas favoritas, más que aquéllas" (Thése are my favourite live nude lesbians, more than thóse óver thére).

Think of pronouns as being a little more emphatic than adjectives, hence why they carry a diacritic accent. It makes a little bit of sense that way. Also, remember that the accent is diacritic and meant to differentiate between parts of speech, so that the neuter pronouns "esto", "eso", and "aquello" (yep, Spanish does have a neuter gender, barely) do not need an accent, as there are no corresponding neuter adjectives.

Nine Diacritics for the Monosyllables Doomed to Confound!
Two for the Bisyllables in their Academic Halls!

In the land of homonyms, where ambiguities lie...

There are a few more instances of diacritic accent that are in place simply to distinguish pairs of homonyms. There is no good rationale for why one of each pair of hononyms has an accent and the other doesn't. They must simply be committed to memory. Thankfully, they are not too many.

    1. el: Definite masculine article. "El gato loco." (The crazy cat.)
    2. él:: Third person masculine personal pronoun. "Él está loco." (He is crazy.)
    1. tu: Second person possessive adjective. "Tu gato loco." (Your crazy cat.)
    2. tú: Second person informal personal pronoun. " eres un gato loco." (You're a crazy cat.)
    1. mi First person possesive adjective. "Mi ratón veloz." (My speedy mouse.)
    2. mí: Non-nominative first person personal pronoun. "El gato loco canta para ." (The crazy cat sings for me.)
    1. te: Informal second person reflexive pronoun. "En la Rusia Soviética, el gato loco te bebe." (In Soviet Russia, the crazy cat drinks you.)
    2. té: Noun meaning "tea". "El gato loco bebe ." (The crazy cat drinks tea.)
    1. mas: Disjuntive conjunction equivalent to "pero" (but). "El gato loco intenta comer al ratón veloz, mas no puede." (The crazy cat tries to eat the speedy mouse, but he cannot.)
    2. más: Adverb meaning "more". "El ratón veloz corre más rápido que el gato loco." (The speedy mouse runs more quickly than the crazy cat.)
    1. si: Conditional conjunction meaning "if". "Si el gato loco fuera más veloz, comería ratones." (If the crazy cat were faster, he would eat mice.)
    2. sí: Adverb for affirmation meaning "yes", or reflexive pronoun. "¡ te amo!" (Yes, I love you!) "El gato loco se lame a mismo." (The crazy cats licks himself.)
    1. de Preposition meaning "of" or "from". "El gato loco es de EU" (The crazy cat is from the USA.)
    2. Used for a couple of conjugations of the verb "dar" (to give). " usted el dinero." (Give the money.)
    1. se: Multi-purpose personal pronoun. "El gato loco se durmió." (The crazy cat fell asleep.)
    2. sé: Conjugated form of either "ser" (to be) or "saber" (to know). "¡ fuerte, Silvestre!" (Be strong, Sylvester!)
    1. o/ó Disjuntive conjunction meaning "or". It only has an accent when placed between numerals and when in danger of confusion with a zero, e.g. "42 ó 69". It is probably one of the most common spelling mistakes to indiscriminately accentuate "o" between ordinary words.
    1. solo: Adjective meaning "alone". "El ratón veloz trabaja solo." (The speedy mouse works alone.)
    2. sólo: Adverb meaning "only". The Royal Academy is rather lax on this particular diacritic and admits that sometimes when there is no ambiguity, it is admissible to spell the adverb without an accent too. "El gato loco sólo persigue ratones veloces." (The crazy cat only chases speedy mice.)
    1. aun/aún: This word has an accent when its meaning is equivalent to "todavía" (yet or still). When it has other meanings, such as "hasta" (until), "también" (also), "incluso" (even), and "siquiera" (negative sense of "even"), it doesn't have an accent. "El gato loco aún persigue al ratón veloz." (The crazy cat still chases the speedy mouse.) "Aun el mejor gato de EU no es tan rápido como el ráton veloz." (Even the best cat of the USA isn't as fast as the speedy mouse.)

We're almost done with all the rules! All that's left are some picky tidbits, some odds and ends, and the fine print.

No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited or taxed. May cause diabetes in geese.

  1. The three basic rules in NeuRet's writeup need a small modification: for the oxytone and paroxytone rule, words ending in consonant+"s" are considered to end in a consonant besides "s". These words are mostly of foreign origin or onomatopeia. Therefore, "-ceps" does have an accent according to the paroxytone rule, and "tic-tacs" does not have an accent according to the oxytone rule.

  2. As far as accent rules are concerned, the silent letter "h" doesn't exist. That is to say, an "h" between two vowels doesn't prevent the formation of a diphthong or triphthong, so the syllabification would be "sahu-me-rio" (incense or other aromatic smoke).

  3. The adverbs formed from adjectives by adding the ending "-mente" (equivalent to "-ly" in English) always have two positions of stress, one on the original adjective, and another on the "-mente" ending. Though this technically makes them all paroxytones, for spelling purposes we completely ignore the "-mente" ending and accentuate them just like the original adjective. Thus"-cil-men-te" (easily) and "fe-liz-men-te." (happily)

  4. Compound words behave as a single word and follow the three basic rules in NeuRet's writeup. Hyphenated words are treated as two separate words.

  5. Verbs with enclitic pronouns attached to them at the end are accented in according to the three basic rules. E.g. "-be-lo" (know it) and "se-lo" (be it). This rule was explicitly published in the same 1959 reform that banned the accents on monosyllables.

  6. Foreign words that have not been adapted to Spanish phonology retain their foreign spelling, which means no Spanish accents. The only exception is words coming from Latin, which do admit Spanish phonology and therefore must be accented in the same way.

  7. Although lazy typesetters and other lazy people would love to justify their lack of accents on capital letters, the Royal Academy has never published any rule against accenting capital letters and recommends that words in capital letters carry an accent like any other word.

Some Parting Words

Ok. That really is it. NeuRet's writeup and mine cover everything. Unless the Royal Academy decides to publish another reform sometime soon, you can consider these two writeups as the definitive last word on how to use Spanish accents.

I know it seems like a lot of stuff to learn. It really isn't all that much. All of the rules in this writeup are basically exceptions. In a way, all of this writeup is the fine print. The rules in NeuRet's writeup are sufficient to cover the accents of almost all Spanish words. The completeness of the rules in my own writeup is perhaps excessive pedantry.

I know that I'm quite the freak myself for insisting on always putting accents on everything. My friends think I'm a little weird because of it, and it often seems to draw a bit of attention online when I use accents on the internet chatrooms or message boards. Nevertheless, I'm in love with the Spanish language (if you couldn't tell already), and I enjoy to see it properly written. I think it makes it look more beautiful. I wish I could convince you of the same.


Sources: Almost all of this writeup is information I distilled from the official publication of the Royal Spanish Academy on Spanish orthography, with support and collaboration from the Spanish academies from other countries. It can be found here.

The Royal Spanish Academy's website, should the above link fail, is

http://www.rae.es

I also consulted the following text, for some information on when the Royal Academy published these rules and suggestions.

Seco, Manuel. Diccionario de Dudas de la Lengua Española. Aguilar S.A. Ediciones. Madrid, 1973.

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