Orthographic Accents in Spanish Statements

Some words take accent marks in indirect questions

boy running
No sé dónde está. (I don't know where he is.).

Woodleywonderworks / Creative Commons.

For beginning Spanish students, the rule they're taught about orthographic accents may seem straightforward: Words such as qué (what) and cuántos (how many) have accents on them when they're used in questions but don't otherwise. But the use of such accents marks in reality is a bit more complicated, as the accent mark is retained in some types of statements.

For example, here's one sentence you might see: El Banco Central no aclaró cuántos dólares vendió. (The Central Bank did not make clear how many dollars it sold.)

Accents in Indirect Questions

It is true that various words have orthographic accents—accent marks that affect the meanings of words but not the pronunciation—when they are parts of questions. The twist to the rule that questions can be part of statement, a statement that ends in a period, rather than as part of a question, a sentence that begins and ends in question marks.

Such questions are known as indirect questions. For example, the sample sentence above indirectly asks the question of how many dollars were sold, but it doesn't do so directly.

Some indirect questions are obvious, as in this sentence: Quisiera saber dónde puedo encontrar algún programa para convertir archivos de MP3. (I would like to know where I can find a program for converting MP3 files.) Often, sentences that begin in phrases such as quiero saber (I want to know) or no saber (I don't know) are indirect questions. But sometimes the indirect questions are more subtle.

Here are some more examples of indirect questions that use orthographic accents:

  • No sé dónde está. (I don't know where he is.)
  • Saben qué va a pasar. (They know what is going to happen.)
  • Ella me dijo por qué se cambió su nombre. (She told me why she changed her name.)
  • Es difícil decir exactamente cuántos cadáveres había. (It's difficult to say exactly how many corpses there were.)
  • La comisión va a investigar quién es el responsable. (The commission will investigate who is the one responsible.)

Words That Change Form in Questions

These are the words that require the orthographic accent in questions, whether they are direct or indirect:

  • adónde (where to, where)
  • cómo (how)
  • cuál (which, what)
  • cuándo (when)
  • cuánto, cuántos (how much, how many)
  • dónde (where)
  • para qué (what for, why)
  • por qué (why)
  • qué (what, which)
  • quién (who)

These are all known as interrogative words and include pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

Sometimes, especially with qué, the accent is needed to clarify the meaning of the word that is being used, and the meaning changes without the accent. Note the difference between these two sentences:

  • que va a comer. (I know that he is going to eat. Que here functions as a relative pronoun.)
  • qué va a comer. (I know what he is going to eat. Qué here is an interrogative pronoun.)

Similarly, when cómo is functioning as a question word, it usually is translated as "how." But in statements that aren't indirect questions, it is translated as "as" or "like." This is one way you can tell whether cómo is being used in an indirect question.

  • Quiero saber cómo se hace. (I want to know how it is done.)
  • Los niños llegaron como una tormenta. (The children arrived like a storm.)

Example Sentences

Here are each of the interrogative words used as an indirect question:

  • No sabemos adónde vamos. (We don't know where we're going.)
  • Me gustaría aprender cómo escribirlo en inglés. (I would like to learn how to write it in English.)
  • No tengo idea cuál es la receta para la felicidad. (I don't have an idea what the recipe for happiness is.)
  • No me dijo cuándo volvería a casa. (She didn't tell me when she would come home.)
  • No me importa cuánto dinero tengas. (It doesn't matter to me how much money you have.)
  • Es difícil decir dónde estamos en comparación con los otros. (It's difficult to say where we are compared with the others.)
  • No comprendo para qué sirve el cinismo. (I don't know what the purpose of cynicism is.)
  • No sabíamos por qué esto había sucedido. (We don't know why this has happened.)
  • Quiero entender qué me está ocurriendo. (I want to understand what is happening to me.)

Key Takeaways

  • Interrogative words in Spanish require accent marks when they are used in both direct and indirect questions.
  • Common interrogative words include dónde (where), cómo (how), and por qué (why).
  • The unaccented que usually means "that," while the accented qué usually means "what."