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SPANISH ACCENT MARKS: How to Always Use Them Correctly

Si has estado viendo nuestros videos (If you have been watching our videos), you have probably noticed that, sometimes, there are little thingies on top of vowels. 

Se llaman acentos ortográficos o tildes (They’re called accent marks or tildes) and they don’t just randomly appear. There are specific rules behind them and knowing those rules will make your life easier when writing in Spanish. So, in today’s video, I’ll explain las reglas de acentuación to help you boost your Spanish skills. Ready? 

Accent Marks are important

I know that most Spanish learners think that accent marks are somewhat scary or even pointless, but trust me, las tildes (accent marks) exist for a reason and you need to master them to pronounce words correctly and to write properly in Spanish.

What are accent marks?

Aunque parece que vienen de Marte (Although they seem to come from Mars), accent marks are the written representation of stressed syllables; that is, the portion of a word that native speakers put stress on when speaking.

There are languages where accent marks may appear sobre las consonantes (on top of consonants). Thankfully, in Spanish they are written on top of the vowels, that is, A, E, I, O, U.

If you read my article about vowels, you’ll discover that there are only five vowels in Spanish, and they always sound the same regardless of accent marks. Así que, como puedes ver (so, as you can see), it’s already easier than you might have thought!  

Otra cosa importante sobre las tildes (Another important detail about Spanish accent marks): there can’t be more than one per word. In French, you can come across words like this: délétère, where each accent mark is indicating a different pronunciation, pero eso nunca pasará en español (but that will never happen in Spanish). 

¡Entonces, no te espantes! (So, keep calm!) I’ll explain this step by step…

Which words need an accent mark?

Monosyllables are words that have only one syllable and in Spanish, generally speaking, these words no llevan tilde (don’t need an accent mark). Some examples include yo (I), pan (bread), mes (month).

Sometimes, however, we need an accent mark to indicate that certain monosyllables have a different meaning although their spelling and pronunciation are essentially the same. For example, más (more) and mas (but) or tu (your) and (you).

Now, instead of trying to learn rules about when to add the syllable and when not to, the easiest way to get them right is by memorizing them correctly within the context of a sentence or a chunk. 

What are chunks? Well, they are fixed word combinations that native speakers use all the time and that you can just learn by heart because they will always be correct.

Quiero más is an example of a chunk that you might read somewhere. So, if you learn the whole chunk by heart WITH the accent mark, you’ll always use it correctly!  Then, if you think of the chunk quiero más  whenever you want more of something or when there is more of something, you will already know you need an accent mark on letter A.

Speaking of chunks, did you know that Spring Spanish has developed an innovative method to learn Spanish and other languages entirely based around the concept of chunks? It’s called Conversation Based Chunking, and if you’d like to learn more about it, check out the free Spanish chunking training on our website!

Other rules on accent marks

Remember that accent marks indicate which is the stressed syllable. Words with more than one syllable may be either agudas, graves y esdrújulas (there’s no translation, I’m afraid).

Las palabras agudas stress the last syllable and need an accent mark if they end with an N, an S, or a vowel. For example: 

  • camión (truck) or canción (song)

These two words end with an N and the last syllable is being stressed. If I were to stress the first syllable, these words would no longer be palabras agudas, instead, they would be palabras graves and their pronunciation would be cámion or cáncion, neither of which exist in Spanish. 

  • inglés (English) or al revés (upside down)

Again, the accent mark is indicating that the last syllable is the stressed syllable. If we were to change it, the result would be íngles (which actually means groin, but carries no accent mark) and al réves (which is not a word in Spanish).

  • bebé (baby) or café (coffee or brown)

In this case, both words end with a vowel and the stressed syllable is the last syllable. Changing the stress would result in bebe, which has any entirely different meaning (related to the verb beber, to drink) and cáfe, which is a German, not Spanish. 

Las palabras graves stress the second-to-last syllable and they all need an accent mark unless they end with an N, an S, or a vowel… so, the other way around. For example: 

  • fácil (easy)
  • lápiz (pencil)
  • árbol (tree)

Notice that the second-to-last syllable is being stressed; otherwise, the pronunciation would be facil, lapiz, arbol, neither of which exists in Spanish.

Las palabras esdrújulas stress the third-to-last syllable and they all need an accent mark. For example: 

  • México
  • música (music)
  • cuídate (take care)
  • oxígeno (oxygen)

There’s yet another category: las palabras sobreesdrújulas. These words stress the fourth-to-last syllable and they all need an accent mark as well. Some examples include:

  • cuéntamelo (tell it to me)
  • explícaselo (explain it to them)
  • fácilmente (easily)

You might be thinking, how on earth am I going to know which is which? There’s actually a little trick. If you want to discover it, leave a comment!

Conclusion

Uff, that wasn’t an easy lesson, right? Luckily, when speaking Spanish, you don’t have to worry about spelling. Still, you have to stress the right syllable in each word. But if learning the accent marks or the rules behind them isn’t your thing, our advice is to listen, listen, listen to as much Spanish as you can (and preferably read a lot too!). That way, tus oídos (your ears) will pick up the correct pronunciation and stress in all words and you’ll start doing it correctly yourself.

Another benefit from listening a lot to Spanish: you’ll discover a LOT of the chunks I’ve mentioned earlier in this video… and these chunks are the key to speaking fluent Spanish without translating in your head.

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