Spanish Pronunciation – How and When To Use Accents

Spanish Pronunciation – How and When To Use Accents

In this article on Spanish pronunciation, I will attempt to describe all the instances in which accents are used in written Spanish. The article could have also been called Where To Put Stress In Spanish Words. First off, the accent mark used in Spanish is called a tilde (in Spanish). It is used to show where the stress of the word is, or which syllable of a word has emphasis. This syllable sounds a bit louder, or stronger than the other syllables. And oftentimes, the stress will alter the definition of the word.


The 2 basic rules of Spanish pronunciation are:
1) the second to last syllable is always stressed unless it ends in a consonant other than N or S, in which case the stress is on the last syllable.
2) an accent mark is used to break rule #1, in which case the stress is then placed on the accented syllable. Let’s look at a few examples which follow the first basic pronunciation rule.

These words end in a consonant other than N or S, so the stress is on the last syllable:

These words do not end in a consonant other than N or S, so the stress is on 2nd to last syllable

Now let’s look at some examples where the accent is placed to break the first basic pronunciation rule. Without the accent, the stress would be on the 2nd to last syllable.


Now something important about Spanish pronunciation that I learned when I took my first Spanish class in college and which has really stuck with me. It helps to note the difference between strong vowels and weak vowels.

The strong vowels are AE, and O. The weak vowels are I, and U. What this means is that when two vowels appear next to each other, if they are of the same type (strong or weak), they each are their own syllable. But if they are mixed, the strong vowel combines with the weak one to create one syllable (known as a diphthong). Let’s consider some examples.

The following examples have two consecutive vowels of the same type (both strong or both weak):
maestro = The A and E are both strong vowels, so they form 2 syllables. Ma-es-tro. Since the word ends in O, the stress is on the ES, or 2nd to last syllable. So there is no need to put an accent on the E.

boxeador = Here the A and E are reversed. Since it ends in R, the stress is on the last syllable. Box-e-a-dor.

empleo = The E and O are both strong vowels so they each are a syllable in the word.
Em-ple-o, with the stress on the 2nd to last syllable. No need to accent the E.

ciudad = the stress is on the last syllable because it ends in D, but the word has 3 syllables. Ci-u-dad. The I and U are both weak so they each create a syllable.

The following examples have consecutive vowels that are different, one strong and one weak. In these diphthongs the strong vowel takes precedence over the weaker vowel.

escuela = the stress is on the 2nd to last syllable, which is created by U and E, a strong and weak syllable combined. Es-cue-la

viernes = the stress is on the 2nd to last syllable with another strong and weak vowel combination. Vier-nes.

A few other words with strong / weak vowel syllables:
cuatro = cua-tro
nueve = nue-ve
demasiado = de-ma-sia-do
fuego = fue-go
continuo = con-ti-nuo
habitación = ha-bi-ta-ción (here the O is accented not to separate it from the I, but because it takes the stress away from the 2nd to last syllable)

In regards to accents, it is important to know the strong/weak vowel rule. Let’s consider a few words to see why.
sabía = Without the accent, the stress would fall on the first A and would have 2 syllables: sa-bia. But with the accent, a 3rd syllable is created because it is placed on the weak vowel next to a strong vowel. sa-bi-a

río = Without the accent, the stress would fall on the O, since the O is strong and the I is weak. Similar words: oída grúa vía


ONE SYLLABLE WORDS If a word has one syllable, and ends in a vowel, N or S, there isn’t a 2nd to last syllable to put the stress. So these words could have had an accent or not. The Gods of Spanish decided not to create an accent on single syllable words. So why are there single syllable words with accents? These are to differentiate between words with the same sound but a different meaning. Remember, these SOUND the same. The accent is for the benefit of those reading written Spanish. Here are some examples.

si vs. sí (if vs. yes)
mi vs. mí (my vs. me)
el vs. él (the vs. he)
se vs sé (multi-use se in reflective verbs vs. yo sé)
tu vs. tú (your vs. you)
de vs. dé (multi-use preposition vs. command or subjunctive form of the verb dar)
aun vs. aún (even vs. still, yet)
mas vs. más (but, yet vs. more)

Similarly, the following words would normally have the stress on the 2nd to last syllable. So why is there an accent on the 2nd to last syllable? It is the written version which helps define the word to Spanish readers.

solo vs. sólo (alone vs. only)
como vs. cómo (as, like vs. how)
este vs. éste (this vs. this one)
ese vs. ése (that vs. that one)
The last two examples above can be male/female or singular/plural and are demonstrative ADJECTIVES (without accent) vs. demonstrative PRONOUNS (with accent). In traditional written Spanish, the accents in the demonstrative pronouns are written, but this practice is not used as much in modern written Spanish.

Words from other languages that have come into everyday Spanish use, names of people or places, or famous brand names of multinational corporations, usually do not follow the rules of pronunciation. Rather, they put stress on the word as it happens in the original language, and don’t add accents.
sandwich hot-dog Hollywood

The suffix RE often has to do with repeating something.
releer = re-read
reenviar = to resend, or forward
This RE tends to have its own syllable, even when the E is next to the weak vowel. For example in the words
reunión (re-u-ión)
reunir (re-u-nir)
reiterar (re-i-ter-ar)
the weak vowel after RE has its own syllable, which is an exception to the strong/weak vowel rule above. This usually only occurs with certain words that begin with RE, especially vowels, but doesn’t apply to all nouns that have this.

THE SILENT U When a U comes immediately after a Q, it is silent, and it doesn’t take on the action of a weak vowel. Think of the U as non-existent.
aquí (a-quí)
quiero (qui-e-ro)
Let’s examine this word in closer detail. cualquier (cual-quier) Here the stress is on the final syllable because it ends in R. The E is the strong vowel against the I so that forms one syllable. The U after the Q is silent so it is not acting like a syllable. The first syllable has the strong A next to the weak U creating one syllable. If the U were not silent after the Q, it would create a 3rd syllable and sound something like (cual-kwooi-er)

The following words carry a written accent when they are used to form a question OR an exclamation.
qué dónde adónde cuándo cuál cuánto quién
When there is no accent on these words they are serving as a relative pronoun.

I hope this article covers everything you need to know about using the accent in Spanish, as well as where to put stress. If you can think of anything I forgot to mention, please post a comment below and I will update the article.

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