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Many students of Spanish and even native speakers of Spanish do not know when to place a written accent on certain Spanish words. This Tip for the Week is for English speakers who are learning Spanish, native speakers of Spanish who may not have studied this for a long time or not at all, and for those who teach Spanish to either group. This Tip for the Week may be especially helpful to heritage speakers – those who grew up speaking Spanish but never have studied this important aspect of written Spanish. The good news is that Spanish has only a few rules about the use of accent marks and they are very clear and easy to master.
First, it is essential to realize that Spanish existed as a spoken language before any organized attempt was made to regulate its writing system. The first serious and most enduring effort to do so occurred in the early 1700s, when the Real Academia de la Lengua Española (R.A.E.) was founded in 1728. This organization exists to this day and has official (royal) authority to establish grammar rules, spelling and to decide whether foreign words will be incorporated into the official dictionary.
The first important point for our purposes is to keep in mind that the language existed before any official rules about spelling and accent marks were created. Second, when creating a written system for a language with alphabets there are two ways to go: etymological spellings or more phonetic ones. English tends to be conservative in that the spelling of English words reflects their origins to some extent, particularly in the case of words derived from French or Anglo Saxon. Spanish opted for a phonetic approach, first because it was the widely practiced one even before any official attempts were made to create a cohesive set of orthographical rules.
Spanish only uses written accents to show which vowel in a word is stressed (i.e., which is the tonic syllable). Accent marks in Spanish do not indicate anything about how a vowel is articulated. Now you’re ready to begin learning the rules:
The rules given here and the names for the first two types of words (llanas or graves, and agudas) are essential if you hope or plan to study of Spanish poetry. In addition, they are the words used to describe the two most common types of words in the language when it comes to indicating which syllable in a word is stressed, or pronounced more forcibly. Now you’re ready to begin learning the rules. The rules governing how to know whether or not to use a written accent on a word can be reduced to only five:
If you learn them and learn the following handful of examples by heart, you will make few mistakes in writing Spanish correctly where the use of written accents is concerned.
Examples: computadora, almohada, publicas, publican, llana, grave…
Examples: animal, hablar, comer, vivir (in other words, all infinitives), calidad (and all words ending in «dad»), similitud (and all words ending in «tud»).
Examples: carácter (but note, oddly enough, that caracteres follows the rule for words ending in a vowel, «n» or «s»): árbol, alienación (and likewise all words ending in «ión»).
Of course, one-syllable words cannot be stressed on any other than its one syllable, so the use or non-use of a written accent does not change how they are pronounced. The use of the written accent becomes apparent when they are transcribed from spoken Spanish, in context.
Examples: el vs. él; tu vs. tú; te vs. té; si vs. sí; mi vs. mí; se vs. sé.
Examples: qué vs. que; cómo vs. como (which can be a verb or an adverb); éste vs. este; sólo (adverb) vs. solo (adjective, masculine singular); aún (meaning todavía) and aun (meaning certain uses of hasta); 13 ó 14.
Note that the R.A.E. has decreed that the use of the accent to distinguish between demonstrative pronouns and demonstrative adjectives is not necessary, nor distinctions between sólo/solo or aún/aun – unless using or not using the written accent in a given context would give rise to ambiguity. Because of the difficulty involved, many writers persist in following the “old” rules.
We hope this mini-lesson helps anyone who has ever been confused or wondered about accent marks. We welcome and invite reader comments.
© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).
In Spanish, this is my biggest issue when it comes to my writing. Reading this tip has really helped. I’ll make sure to bookmark this in order to use as a reference. Thank you.