Sooner or later anyone interested in learning Spanish or improving their Spanish literacy skills faces the question “Do I write the accent mark above the stressed syllable or not?” Of course the beginning Spanish learner has the additional problem of figuring out which is the stressed syllable when reading text and the syllable isn’t marked by the written accent.
So, let’s start with the basics. After reading the lesson on Spanish vowels and syllables, you know that the five vowels sounds come across clearly in all syllables–none are slurred or de-stressed as in English. Each word, however, has one prominent syllable louder than the others, if it is a multi-syllabic word.
Predominantly, syllables are “open”, that is, they end after the vowel: ca-sa ‘house’, me-sa ‘table’. If they are closed, only a few consonants can occur to close the syllable; usually m, n, s, r or l. This syllable pattern is so strong that the literacy traditions in Spanish speaking countries are based on teaching the little ones the “ma-me-mi-mo-mu” (and ta-te-ti-to-tu, and so-on) when they learn to read.
These facts can simplify our description of the relationship between stressed syllable and written accents. Most Spanish words end in a vowel or n or s. Most such words have the spoken stress on the penult, or next-to-last syllable. Since this is the prevailing situation, these words do not have a written accent, for example:
casa — house
mesa — table
vivo — alive
cantan — they sing
hablas — you speak
Not for nothing, then, all these words are said to be grave (acento grave).
If a word ends in some other consonant (not n or s), the normative expectation is that its stressed syllable will be the last one. Think of the infinitive form of all those verbs: cantar, correr, vivir, etc…not to mention abstract nouns ending in -dad: bondad ‘goodness’, enfermedad ‘illness’, nouns ending in -al: nacional ‘national’, delantal ‘apron’ and so many others.
These words are said to be aguda ‘acute’ or sharp. Again, since this is the expected situation for non-vowel, non- n and s ending words, the accent is not marked.
So when is the accent marked? In a nutshell, it is when the above patterns are violated.
Rule 1. All words with a stress on the third syllable from the end have a written accent:
antipático — mean
libélula — dragonfly
dinámica — dynamics
número — number
They tend to be academic or literary words and are called esdrújula words (palabras esdrújulas).
Rule 2. Words ending in a vowel, n or s that have the spoken stress on the final syllable (palabras agudas that end in n, s or a vowel):
canción — song
melón — melon
hablé — I spoke
habló — he/she spoke
quizás — maybe
Think of all those verbs that have to be distinguished between the first person subject, present tense (hablo ‘I speak’) and the third person subject, past tense (habló ‘he/she spoke’).
Rule 3. Words ending in other than a vowel, n or s, but have the spoken stress on the next-to-the-last syllable (palabras graves that do not end in a vowel, n or s):
cárcel — jail (very few of these)
Rule 4. When a, e and o–the strong vowels–are combined with i and u–the weak vowels–the result is a complex but unitary syllabic called a diphthong, and the whole is considered as one vowel, for purposes of grave and acute stress. That is, the weak vowel, in the unmarked case, is merely an on-glide or off-glide to the main vowel:
nadie — no one (stress on na, no written accent because it is a palabra grave)
trauma — trauma (stress on trau, no written accent because it ends in a)
deuda — debt
But if the diphthong is “broken” and the weak vowel has a spoken stress, then the accent is written on that vowel:
alcancía — piggy bank
cantaría — I/he/she would sing
día — day
mío — mine
Rule 5. There are a few cases of a written accent sometimes used to disambiguate short words that otherwise sound the same, such as sé ‘I know’ and se, a reflexive pronoun, té ‘tea’ and te ‘to you’ as in Te ofrezco un té ‘I offer you tea’, also mi ‘my’ and mí ‘me’.
Did you find this article on the Spanish accent mark helpful? Do you see an…sigh…error? Please leave a comment (or question)–I try to answer questions promptly.