Thanks to modern technology, there’s no longer any need to learn how to put accents on Spanish words. Instead of bothering with complicated, picky rules, just announce firstly and loudly that the keyboard on your smart phone “doesn’t do accents”: contemporaries will take this as a perfectly acceptable euphemism for “you don’t do accents,” — and will say no more about it.
There could, of course, be the old fogeys and purists who may mutter something about the state of education these days, and with these in mind, here are some simple rules for the use of accents in Spanish.
Most Spanish accents are to indicate which syllable should be stressed in pronouncing a word. When the pronunciation deviates from the natural spoken stress, the syllable to be stressed is accented.
There are only two rules for natural stress:
If a word ends in a vowel, n, or s, the natural spoken stress goes on the second from last syllable: camino (path or road), libros (books), entienden (they understand)
If a word ends in a consonant other than n or s, the spoken stress falls on the last syllable: español (Spanish), cerrar (to close), ciudad (city).
Words that don’t follow these two rules have a written accent on the stressed syllable: habló (he/she spoke), rápido (fast), cajón (drawer), inglés (English); and in the case of words ending in a consonant other than n or s: lápiz (pencil), árbol (tree).
As a consequence of these two rules, any words stressed on the third from last syllable or an even earlier syllable have a written accent: cámara (camera), teléfono (telephone), rápidamente (quickly).
There are also some other reasons for using accents. One is to differentiate when the same word has several meanings, for example el (the, masc.) and él (he/him); mas (but) and más (more); tu (your) and tú (you).
Words such as qué (what), cuándo (when), cómo (how), dónde (where), quién (who), cuánto (how much) take an accent when used to form a question or an exclamation: ¿cuánto cuesta? (how much does it cost?), ¿dónde vives? (where do you live?), ¡qué diversión! (what fun!). But, háblame cuando llegas (call me when your arrive) and ella no es como tú (she’s not like you), don’t take accents on those words.
Another use of accents is to split up weak vowels (i, u) from strong vowels (a, e, o) to make a separate syllable. When two strong vowels follow one another, each vowel is a separate syllable. Caoba (mahogany) pronounced “cah-oh’-bah.” When a weak vowel is next to a strong vowel, they form a single syllable, with the strong vowel pronounced: bai-lar (dance), cau-ti-vo (captive). To separate a weak vowel into its own syllable, it takes an accent: día (day) is pronounced “dee’-ah”, or púa (barb) “poo’ah”
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