Stress and Accent Marks in Spanish

Nearly all words follow one of three simple rules

accented graffiti
Accent marks have been added in red to this graffiti. The writing says: "For a free and democratic Sahara.".

Chapuisat / Creative Commons.

Knowing how letters are pronounced is only one aspect of learning Spanish pronunciation. Another key aspect is knowing which syllable should be stressed, that is, the one that gets the most vocal emphasis. Fortunately, Spanish has only three basic rules of stress, and there are very few exceptions.

Rules for Spanish Stress and Accent Marks

Spanish uses the acute accent mark (one that rises from left to right) to indicate stress in certain words. The grave and circumflex accent marks are not used. Essentially, the accent mark is used if following the first two rules below don't correctly indicate which syllable is getting the stress:

  • If a word without an accent mark ends in a vowel, n, or s, the stress is on the penultimate (next to last) syllable. For example, toro, computadora, joven. and zapatos all have their accent on the next-to-last syllable. Most words fit this category.
  • A word without an accent mark that ends in other letters has the stress on the last syllable. For example, hotel, hablar, matador, and virtud all have the accent on the final syllable.
  • If a word isn't pronounced according to the above two rules, an accent is placed over the vowel of the syllable that gets the stress. For example, común, piz, dico, inglés, and oja all have the stress on the indicated syllable.

The only exceptions to the above are some words of foreign origin, generally, words adopted from English, that retain their original spelling and often their pronunciation. For example, sandwich is usually spelled without an accent over the initial a, even though the stress is as in English. Similarly, personal names and place names of foreign origin usually are written without accents (unless accents are used in the originating language).

Note also that some publications and signs do not use accent marks over capital letters, although for clarity it is better to use them when possible.

How Making a Word Plural Can Change the Accent Mark

Because words ending in s or n have an accent on the next-to-last syllable, and an -es sometimes is used to make singular words plural, making a word singular or plural can affect the accent mark. This can affect both nouns and adjectives.

If a word with two or more syllables and without an accent mark ends in an n, adding -es to the word will require an accent mark to be added. (Nouns and adjective ending in an unstressed vowel followed by s have identical singular and plural forms.) Words in this category are infrequent.

  • joven (singular, "youth" or "young"), jóvenes (plural)
  • crimen (singular, "crime"), crímenes (plural)
  • canon (singular, "rule"), canónes (rules)
  • aborigen (singular, "indigenous"), aborígenes (plural)

More common are singular words that end in n or s and have an accent on the final syllable. When such words or two or more syllables are made plural by adding -es, the accent mark is no longer needed.

  • almacén (singular, "warehouse"), almacenes (plural)
  • talismán (singular, "lucky charm"), talismanes (plural)
  • afiliación (singular, affiliation), afiliciones (plural)
  • común (singular, "common"), comunes (plural)

Orthographic Accent Marks

Sometimes accent marks are used only to distinguish two similar words, and they don't affect pronunciation because the marks are already on a syllable that is being stressed. For example, el (the) and él (he) are both pronounced the same way, even though they have quite different meanings. Similarly, some words, quien or quién, use accent marks when they appear in questions, but usually not otherwise. Accents that don't affect pronunciation are known as orthographic accents.

Here are some of the common words that are affected by an orthographic accent:

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish words without written accent marks have the stress on the last syllable unless the word ends in s or n, in which case the accent goes on the next-to-last syllable.
  • An accent mark is used to indicate that the stress goes on that syllable where the pattern above isn't followed.
  • Sometimes, an accent mark is used to distinguish meanings between two words that are otherwise spelled alike.