Spanish Accent Marks: The Ultimate Guide
Spanish accents can be confusing – and I'm not just talking about the way they pronounce things in Chile. What about the written accent marks that go above Spanish letters?
In Spanish, accent marks are important. More often than not, an accent (or lack of it) completely changes the meaning of a word.
For example, you definitely don't want to confuse año (year) with ano (anus).
A proper understanding of Spanish accent rules is therefore essential if you want to read and write Spanish effectively.
How does it all work?
The good news is that accent marks in Spanish – like everything else about Spanish spelling – follow very consistent rules. They're easy to learn.
In this article, I'll tell you everything you need to know about Spanish accent marks.
We'll cover what the accents in Spanish are, how and when they're used, how they affect pronunciation, and how you can type them on Windows or a Mac. By the end, you'll never be unsure again about whether to write como or cómo.
A quick note before we get started: Technically these “accent marks” are called diacritics – an extra symbol added to an existing letter. Spanish uses three such diacritics: the diaeresis (ü), the acute accent (é), and the tilde (ñ). You'll never see a grave accent (è) or a circumflex (ê) in Spanish.
Let's start with the simplest diacritic of Spanish’s three:
The Tilde in Spanish (ñ)
This accent mark is only ever found above an “n”. While a tilde-less “n” is pronounced like the English letter “n”, an “ñ” is pronounced roughly like an English “ny”.
In Spanish, “n” and “ñ” are considered to be two completely separate letters. They have different names – “ene” vs. “eñe“, and are listed separately in the dictionary – so for example leñador comes later than lengua and lento. They even have separate keys on a typical Spanish keyboard.
Confusingly, while the English word “tilde” exclusively refers to this “~” symbol, the Spanish cognate tilde is used to refer to diacritics in general, including the other ones you'll see in this article like the accent on “é”.
What English speakers call a “tilde”, Spanish speakers call la virgulilla or la tilde de la eñe.
The Diaeresis in Spanish (ü)
This symbol – two dots above a letter – is called a diaeresis (pronounced “die heiresses”).
Sometimes people call it an umlaut, but technically, an umlaut and a diaeresis aren't the same thing, despite looking identical.
Suffice to say that Spanish has no umlauts, only diaereses, as seen in words like pingüino or vergüenza.
Truth be told, there aren’t many words in Spanish that use a diaeresis. Here are the ones you’re more likely to encounter:
- ambigüedad – ambiguity
- antigüedad – antiquity
- argüir – to argue
- bilingüe – bilingual
- cigüeña – stork (the bird)
- desagüe – drain
- lingüista – linguist
- lingüística linguistics
- monolingüe – monolingual
- paragüero – umbrella stand
- pingüino – penguin
- piragüista – canoeist
- plurilingüe – multilingual
- vergüenza – shame
Did you spot the pattern? In all of these words, the diaeresis appears above a “u”. More tellingly, that “ü” always comes immediately after a “g”, and immediately before an “e” or “i”.
To understand what’s going on here, we need to consider how the “gue” and “gui” letter combinations are pronounced when they don’t have diaeresis.
Normally, a “g” in Spanish is pronounced like an English “g”. But when it’s followed by an “e” or “i” – as in words like gemelo (twin) or girar (to spin) – it becomes a raspy, “h”-like sound from the back of your throat. This is the same sound that's normally written in Spanish as a letter “j”. So gemelo, for example, is pronounced as if it was written jemelo.
But wait – what if you have an “e” or “i”, and you want to preserve the regular “g” sound without turning it into a “j”?
Spanish does this by sticking a “u” in the middle, as in as in words like guitarra (guitar) and manguera (hose). That extra “u” is silent – it’s just there to tell you that the “g” should be pronounced like a regular “g”, not like a “j”.
So guitarra is pronounced “gee-TAH-ra”. If it was spelled gitarra it would be pronounced “hee-TAH-ra”.
But hold on: what if you don’t want the “u” to be silent? That’s where the diaeresis steps in.
In a word like pingüino, the diaeresis tells you that the “u” should be pronounced out loud like a regular “u”. It’s not just there to provide moral support to the “g” – it’s a fully articulated vowel.
So pingüino is pronounced like “peen-GWEEN-oh”. If it didn't have the diacritic on the “u”, it would be pronounced “peen-GHEEN-oh”.
With that out of the way, it’s time to tackle the biggest and baddest of Spanish accent marks:
The Acute Accent in Spanish
Time to bring out the big guns. The acute accent (é) is by far the most common diacritic in the Spanish language. It can appear above all five vowels: á, é, í, ó, ú. At most, it appears once per word.
Generally, an acute accent is used to denote word stress. If you don't know what that means, let me quickly explain:
What Is Word Stress?
In linguistics, stress is when a particular syllable or syllables in a word are emphasised when speaking. Usually this means the syllable is pronounced louder and longer than its neighbours.
English makes liberal use of word stress, and you need to get it right. In the word “language”, the first syllable is stressed – “LANG-gwij”. Pronouncing the stress on the second syllable – saying “lang-GWIJ” – would sound very strange to a native English speaker.
Sometimes in English, changing the stress can change the meaning of the word. For example, the word “present” can be pronounced as “PREH-sunt” (as in “a christmas present”) or “pruh-SENT” (as in “he presented his case”).
Annoyingly, English spelling doesn't tell you much about where to put the stress. If you read the word “present” with no context, you don't know which way to pronounce it.
Spanish is much kinder in this regard.
Word Stress in Spanish – and How it Relates to Spanish Accents
Remember that Spanish spelling is highly consistent. From the spelling of a Spanish word, you should always know exactly how to pronounce it (regional pronunciation quirks notwithstanding).
This is also true for word stress. When you read a Spanish word, you can apply consistent rules every time to figure out which syllable receives the emphasis.
In nutshell, those rules go like this:
- If the word ends in a vowel, an “n”, or an “s”, stress the last-but-one syllable:
- hablo = “HA-blo”
- joven = “JO-ven”
- computadora = “com-pu-ta-DO-ra”
- hombres = “HOM-bres”
- If the word ends in a consonant other than “n” or “s”, stress the last syllable:
- español = “es-pa-ÑOL”
- estoy = “es-TOY”
- feliz = “fe-LIZ”
- trabajador = “tra-ba-ja-DOR”
- If the word has an acute accent, ignore the above rules and stress the accented syllable:
- habló = “ha-BLO”. Without the accent it would be “HA-blo”.
- jóvenes = “JO-ve-nes”. Without the accent it would be “jo-VEN-es”
- inglés = “in-GLES” Without the accent it would be “IN-gles”
- estábamos = “es-TA-ba-mos”. Without the accent it would be “es-ta-BA-mos”
Another way to think about it: an acute accent means that the word is an exception to the “normal” rules of Spanish word stress (i.e. rules #1 and #2 above.)
Remember those simple rules, and you'll be fine most of the time. It's all you really need to know as a beginner. (Mnemonic for remembering the “n” and “s” exception: the word “nose”.)
But we can break it down further. For starters, it helps to clarify exactly what we mean by a “syllable”.
Breaking Down Spanish Words Into Syllables
Generally, when a vowel isn't next to another vowel, it forms its own separate syllable:
- hablo – two syllables, “HA-blo”
- comfortable – four syllables, “com-for-TA-ble”
But when a word has two or more vowels in a row (as in creo or acuerdo), it gets a bit more complicated.
First, understand that the vowels a, e, and o are considered in Spanish to be the “strong vowels”. i and u are the “weak vowels” (Mnemonic: you and I are weak).
Two strong vowels in a row are considered to be two separate syllables:
- creo – two syllables, “CRE-o”
- caos – two syllables, “CA-os”
- coreano – four syllables, “co-re-A-no”
A strong vowel with a weak vowel, or two weak vowels together, is considered a single syllable (When two vowels form a single syllable like this, it's called a diphthong):
- nueve – two syllables, NUE-ve
- saliera – three syllables, sa-LIE-ra.
- fui – one syllable, FUI
This distinction matters when you're figuring out where to put the stress.
For example, the word bacalao (“cod”) ends in two strong vowels, so the stress goes on the first of the two: “ba-ca-LA-o”. The word hacia (“towards”), on the other hand, ends in a diphthong, so the stress goes elsewhere: “HA-cia”
What if the word stress does fall on a diphthong? For example, the word durmiendo (“sleeping”) has three syllables, no written accent, and ends in a vowel. Therefore the stress must go on the diphthong in the middle: “dur-MIEN-do”. There's no reason why this can't happen.
Normally, a diphthong is pronounced with slightly more emphasis on the second vowel than the first. E.g. in fui, the “i” is a little bit stronger than the “u”.
However, sometimes the two vowels aren't pronounced as a diphthong: they're pronounced as two separate syllables entirely. In this case, the word is written with an accent to show that it's an exception:
- compraríamos (“we would buy”)
- tío (“uncle”)
- búho (“owl”)
(How does the “h” in búho affect the placement of the accent? The answer: it doesn't. The RAE have ruled that, for the purposes of word stress and written accents, an “h” has no effect. You treat it as if it wasn't there at all. So the “u” and “o” in búho are still considered to form a diphthong, even though there's an extra letter in between them.)
Why Are Some Words Accented In Some Forms, But Not Others?
Can you see now why jóvenes is written with an accent, but joven isn't? Remember that joven means “young”, and jóvenes is its plural form:
- El hombre joven = the young man
- Los hombres jóvenes = the young men
In the singular form, the first syllable (“jo”) is stressed. The word ends in an “n”, so rule #1 applies: the last-but-one syllable (which in this case is also the first syllable) receives the stress.
When pluralised, however, we add an extra syllable. With no written accent, we'd have jovenes, and the stress would now “naturally” fall on the second syllable (“ve”). That's wrong – the stress needs to stay on the “jo”. So we now write an accent to show that, despite the pluralisation, the “same” syllable still has the stress.
Another place this happens is when combining pronouns with imperative verbs. Compra means “buy”, but if you want to say “buy them for me”, you combine compra with me (“for me”) and los (“them”) to get cómpramelos. The accent is now necessary because without it, the stress would become “com-pra-ME-los”.
Using An Acute Accent to Distinguish Homonyms in Spanish.
I've explained how the acute accent affects word stress in Spanish. It has one other function you need to know about.
You know how in English, “there”, “they're” and “their” are all pronounced the same? Or “won” and “one”, “right” and “write”, etc.? And you know how some people find this hard, and don't know which won their supposed to right? (Tee-hee.)
Spanish has words like this too. It has a neat way of dealing with the problem: it writes one word with an acute accent, and the other without. For example, sí means “yes” and si means “if”. Both words are pronounced the same. The accent only matters in writing.
You need to learn the following pairs of words:
|Unaccented Spanish word||English||Accented Spanish Word||English|
|de||of, from||dé||give (third-person singular present subjunctive)|
|el||the (masculine singular)||él||he|
|mi||my||mí||me (object pronoun)|
|se||(reflexive pronoun)||sé||I know|
|te||you (object pronoun)||té||tea|
*FOOTNOTE: the word mas, meaning “but”, is very literary and is rarely used in everyday speech. Use pero instead.
Spanish Accent Marks and Question Words
The following words may also be written with or without an accent:
- ¿Cuál? (Which?)
- ¿Cuándo? (When?)
- ¿Cuánto? (How much/many?)
- ¿Cómo? (How?)
- ¿Dónde? (Where?)
- ¿Por qué? (Why?)
- ¿Qué? (What? / Which?)
- ¿Quién? (Who?)
If you don't have time for the full explanation, just remember this rule of thumb: when these words represent a question, write them with an accent. When they represent a statement, don't include an accent:
- ¿Quién es él? – “Who is he?”
- Es el chico de quien te hablé – “He's the guy who I told you about”
With that rough guide, you'll get it right 90% of the time. But let's go into more detail.
If a question word is used in an indirect question, it has an accent:
- Quiero saber quién eres – “I want to know who you are”
- No sé dónde está – “I don't know where he/she/it is”.
If a question word is used as a pronoun, it has no accent:
- El celular que compré está averiado – “The phone that I bought is broken”
- Me iré cuando él llegue – “I'll go when he arrives”
- Es la ciudad donde se pasó – “It's the city where it happened.”
Cómo with an accent means “how”. Como without an accent means “as” or “like”.
(Coincidentally, como is also the first-person singular present form of comer, “to eat”.)
- Me explicó cómo hacerlo – “He/she explained to me how to do it”
- Tan grande como un elefante – “As big as an elephant”
- Como arroz – “I eat rice”
When qué means “what,” write it with an accent:
- Por favor, móstrame qué hacer – “Please, show me what to do.”
- ¡Qué día más bonito! – “What a lovely day!”
When cuánto/cuánta/etc means “how much/many”, write it with an accent:
- Me dijo cuántas personas vendrían – “He told me how many people would come”
Don't forget: in all of these examples, the accent does not change the word's pronunciation. Como, donde, cuando, etc. are all stressed on the first syllable anyway. (If you don't understand why, go back and read the word stress rules above).
Writing them as cómo, dónde, cúando etc. doesn't change anything related to word stress. The distinction only matters in writing.
Spanish Accent Marks: Demonstrative Pronouns vs. Adjectives
There's one last set of words which we need to cover – the demonstrative pronouns and demonstrative adjectives.
A demonstrative adjective is a word like “this” or “that” which describes a noun:
- Este carro – “this car”
- Esa persona – “that person”
- Aquellos libros – “those books”
In English, we have a distinction between “this/these” (used for objects which are close to you) and “that/those” (for objects which are further away. Spanish has three such degrees of distance, explained in the table below.
Like all Spanish adjectives, demonstrative pronouns must also agree with their noun in number and gender:
|distance||masculine singular||feminine singular||masculine plural||feminine plural|
Sometimes in English, we don't need to explicitly say “that car” or “this book”. Instead we can just say “this one”, or “that one”, and it's obvious from the context whether “one” refers to a car, a book, etc..
In Spanish you can do something similar, except “this/that one” is translated to a single word:
- Éste es mi carro – “This is my car”
- No tengo ésa – “I don't have that one”
These are the demonstrative pronouns. They're like the demonstrative adjectives, except they stand by themselves with no need for a supporting noun. Again, they must match the noun they replace in number and gender:
|distance||masculine singular||feminine singular||masculine plural||feminine plural|
Hopefully you've noticed that the demonstrative pronouns are written with accents, while the demonstrative adjectives are not. There's no difference in pronunciation: it's just a visual thing to distinguish the two types of word.
- Este carro no es tan rápido como ése – “This car isn't as fast as that one”
- Esa silla y aquélla – “This chair and that one”
- “¿Tienesaquellibro de que te hablé?” “No, sólo tengoéste.” – “Do you have that book I was telling you about?” “No, I only have this one.”
Strictly speaking, you don't have to write demonstrative pronouns with an accent. The Real Academia Española decreed in 1959 that the accent is optional. However, many sources still follow the old rules and write an accent every single time.
There are also three “neuter” demonstrative pronouns: esto, eso and aquello. Use these to refer to abstract concepts and ideas when there's no specific noun being replaced:
- Me gusta, y eso es lo importante. – “I like it, and that's the important thing”.
Also use them to an object when the gender is unknown. Once the gender has been established, you must switch to éste/ésta/ése etc.:
- “¿Qué es aquello?” “Aquélla es mi casa” – “What's that?” “That's my house”/
Note that esto, eso and aquello, unlike the other demonstrative pronouns, aren't written with accents. That's because there are no demonstrative adjectives with the same pronunciation, so adding an accent wouldn't achieve anything.
How to Type Spanish Accents
Don't know how to type “é”, “ñ”, etc.? If all else fails, just copy and paste the characters from this list:
But you can do better than that. Here's a more convenient way to type them on Windows or a Mac:
How to Type Spanish Accents On a PC
The following shortcuts should work in newer versions of Windows:
- To get an accented vowel press Ctrl + ‘, then the vowel.
- To get “ñ”, press Ctrl + ~, then “n”
- To get “ü”, press Ctrl + :, then “u”.
If that doesn't work, you can try inputting the character code directly.
Each accented character can be entered with a four-digit code. Simply press the “alt” key, then enter the Spanish accent codes below. (Note: you'll need to enter them with the number pad on the right-hand side of your keyboard, not the number keys above the letters.)
|á||Alt + 0225|
|é||Alt + 0233|
|í||Alt + 0237|
|ó||Alt + 0243|
|ú||Alt + 0250|
|ñ||Alt + 0241|
|ü||Alt + 0252|
How to Type Spanish Accents On a Mac
Generally, you can type “special characters” on a Mac by using the Option/Alt key. That's the one labelled “⌥”, between “ctrl” and “cmd”. Here's what you need to know for Spanish:
|á/é/í/ó/ú||press “alt” and “e” together, then release them and press the vowel you want|
|ñ||press “alt” and “n” together, then release them and press “n” again|
|ü||press “alt” and “u” together, then release them and press “u” again|
Depending on your keyboard and system settings, you may also be able to type special characters by holding down a regular letter key. For example, when I hold down “e” on my Mac for a second or so:
Now to get the accented “é”, I just press “2”.