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Speaking with the Right Accent in Spanish

In Spanish, accents are used for words that don't follow the rules for natural stress, to differentiate words with different meanings, and to split weak vowels

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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.

Natural stress in Spanish

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).

Stressed syllables in Spanish

Words that don’t follow these two rules have a written accent on the stressed syllable, for example:

  • habló (he/she spoke);
  • pido (fast);
  • cajón (drawer);
  • inglés (English); and

in the case of words ending in a consonant other than n or s:

  • piz (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:

  • mara (camera);
  • tefono (telephone);
  • pidamente (quickly).

Other reasons for using accents in Spanish

There are also some other reasons for using accents.

To convey meaning

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 (you).

Questions and exclamations

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 llegues (call me when your arrive) and ella no es como tú (she’s not like you), don’t take accents on those words.

Splitting weak vowels

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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