Accent on Accents

How To Use Diacritical Marks

accented graffiti
Accent marks have been added to this graffiti. Chapuisat/Creative Commons.

The most immediately obvious difference between written Spanish and written English is Spanish's use of written accents, and occasionally of diereses (also known as umlauts). Both of these features are known as diacritical marks.

Beginning Spanish students usually learn right away that the main use of the accent is to help with pronunciation, and specifically in telling the speaker which syllable of a word should be stressed. However, accents also have other uses, such as distinguishing between certain homonyms, parts of speech, and indicating a question. The only use of the dieresis is to assist in pronunciation.

Here are the basic rules for using the written accent and the dieresis:


The rules for determining which syllable should be stressed are quite simple in Spanish. Accents are used to indicate exceptions to the rules.

Here are the basic rules:

  • If a word ends in a vowel, the letter s, or the letter n, the stress is on the next to last syllable.
  • In other words without an accent, the stress is on the last syllable.

Simply put, if the stress is on a syllable other than that indicated above, an accent is used to indicate where the stress is placed. Following are a few examples, with the approximate pronunciation in phonetic English. Note that a vowel may either gain or lose an accent when a word is put into plural or singular form. See the rules on pluralization for other examples.

  • examen (egg-SAH-men)
  • exámenes (eggs-SAH-men-ess)
  • muñón (moon-YOHN)
  • muñones (moon-YOHN-ness)
  • canción (kahn-SEEOHN)
  • canciones (kahn-SEEOHN-ess)

Distinguishing Homonyms

Homonym pairs are separate words that have different meanings even though they sound alike. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • de, of, from; first- and third-person singular subjunctive form of dar, to give)
  • el, the; él, he
  • mas, but; más, more
  • mi, my; , me;
  • se, a reflexive and indirect object pronoun used in various ways; , I know
  • si, if; , yes
  • solo, only (adjective), single, alone; sólo, only (adverb), solely
  • te, you (as an object); , tea
  • tu, your; , you

Demonstrative Pronouns

Although the spelling reform of 2010 means they aren't strictly necessary except to avoid confusion, accents also are traditionally used in Spanish on demonstrative pronouns to distinguish them from demonstrative adjectives.

Talk about demonstrative parts of speech might sound like a mouthful, so it's probably best to remember that in English we're simply talking about the words this, that, these and those.

In English, those words can be either adjectives or pronouns. In "I like this book," "this" is an adjective; in "I like this," "this" is a pronoun, since it stands for a noun. Here are the same sentences in Spanish: "Me gusta este libro", I like this book. "Me gusta éste", translated as either "I like this" or "I like this one." Note that when used as a pronoun, éste traditionally has a written accent.

In Spanish the demonstrative pronouns in the singular masculine form are éste, ése, and aquél, and the corresponding adjectives are este, ese, and aquel. Although distinguishing the meanings of these pronouns goes beyond the scope of this lesson, suffice it to say here that este/éste corresponds roughly to this, while both ese/ése and aquel/aquél can be translated as that. Items with which aquel/aquél are used are farther from the speaker. "Quiero aquel libro" could be translated as "I want the book that's over there."

The following chart shows the various forms of the demonstrative pronouns (with the traditional accents) and adjectives, including the feminine and plural forms:

  • Quiero este libro, I want this book. Quiero éste, I want this one. Quiero estos libros, I want these books. Quiero éstos, I want these ones. Quiero esta camisa, I want this shirt. Quiero ésta, I want this one. Quiero estas camisas, I want these shirts. Quiero éstas, I want these ones.
  • Quiero ese libro, I want that book. Quiero ése, I want that one. Quiero esos libros, I want those books. Quiero ésos, I want those ones. Quiero esa camisa, I want that shirt. Quiero ésa, I want that one. Quiero esas camisas, I want those shirts. Quiero ésas, I want those ones.
  • Quiero aquel libro, I want that book over there. Quiero aquél, I want that one over there. Quiero aquellos libros, I want those books over there. Quiero aquéllos, I want those ones over there. Quiero aquellas camisas, I want those shirts over there. Quiero aquéllas, I want those ones over there.

There are also neuter variations of these pronouns (eso, esto, and aquello), and they are not accented because there are no corresponding neuter adjective forms.


A number of words are accented when they are used in a question (including an indirect question) or exclamation, but they aren't otherwise accented. Such words are listed below:

  • ¿Adónde? Where (to)?
  • ¿Adónde vas? Where are you going?
  • ¿Cómo? How?
  • ¿Cómo estás? How are you?
  • ¿Cuál? ¿Cuáles? Which one? Which ones?
  • ¿Cuál es más caro? Which one is more expensive?
  • ¿Cuándo? When? ¿Cuándo sales? When are you leaving?
  • ¿Cuánto? ¿Cuánta? ¿Cuántos? ¿Cuántas? How much? How many? ¿Cuántos pesos cuesta el libro? How many pesos does the book cost?
  • ¿Dónde? Where? ¿De dónde es usted? Where are you from?
  • ¿Por qué? Why? ¿Por qué vas? Why are you going?
  • ¿Qué? What? Which? ¿Qué libro prefieres? What book do you prefer?
  • ¿Quién? ¿Quienes? Who? Whom? ¿Quiénes quieren mi libro? Who wants my book?


The dieresis (or umlaut) is used above the u when the u is sounded in the combinations of güi or güe. Without the umlaut, known as la diéresis or la crema in Spanish, the u would be silent, serving only to indicate that the g is pronounced as a hard g rather than similar to the j. (For example, guey with no umlaut would sound something like "gay.") Among the words with umlauts are vergüenza, shame; cigüeña, stork or crank; pingüino, penguin; and agüero, prediction.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "Accent on Accents." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Accent on Accents. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Accent on Accents." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).