Getting your graphic accents right

The knowledge of how to place a graphic accent (Spanish accent) correctly when you write is one of the skills that take longer to be learned by Spanish native speakers as well as by non-Spanish speakers. So, do not be discouraged if you still do not use it correctly. We propose several “tricks” so you can understand easier how to solve this issue; you will just need to memorize some simple rules…

Briefly, it is a graphic mark that indicates which vowel has a force of pronunciation in each word and it is written from lower left to upper right: á, é, í, ó, ú. Despite of popular thoughts, it is not just an ornament to make words prettier. Sometimes, it can define the meaning of a word and a complete sentence.

A famous example to show this difference:

Lloró por la pérdida de su mujer. (He cried for the loss of his wife)

Lloro por la pérdida de su mujer. (I cry for the loss of his wife)

Lloró por la perdida de su mujer. (He cried for his crazy wife)

Lloro por la perdida de su mujer. (I cry for his crazy wife)

Unlike other languages ​​(such as French, that has more than one type of graphic accent and it can be found more than one in the same word), Spanish only has one accent by word, in cases where it is necessary.

First thing you should do: remember (or ask to a Spanish speaker) how each word is pronounced, and then you can recognize which is the syllable with the strongest pronunciation (stressed syllable). A good technique for this, and it almost never fails, it is to pretend the word you want to write correctly, it’s far from you. Yes, it is not a joke: you need to imagine that word is far away and you need to call it aloud to come closer.

When you do this, you will notice a syllable will get longer or your throat will vibrate more. Then, you have found the stressed syllable!

Once you know this, next step will be to count syllables from right to left, starting at the end. For example: if the word is ʻcarteraʼ, it would be: car (antepenultimate) – te (penultimate) – ra (last). In this case, when you called the word aloud, you probably noticed that the force of pronunciation falls on penultimate syllable…

Let’s see now how these words are called and how to graphically accentuate them:

Una palabra es aguda si…

A word is acute if …

the syllable with accent is the last one. This type of word has a graphic accent only when they end in n, s or vowel. Examples: “algodón”, “cordón” [end in n], ‘compás’, “además’ [end in s], ‘cambió’, ‘colaboré’ [end in vowel].

no se acentúan: ʻamorʼ, ʻsaludʼ, ʻamistadʼ, ʻanimalʼ, ʻrelojʼ, ʻparedʼ [NO terminan en n, s o vocal].

these are not accentuated: ‘amor’, ‘salud’, ‘amistad’, ‘animal’, ‘reloj’, ‘pared’ [they do not end in n, s or vowel].

* There are exceptions for this rule: ‘Raúl’, ‘baúl’, ‘raíz’, ‘maíz’.

A word is llana if …

the syllable with accent is the penultimate one. These types of words are graphically accentuated only when they do not end in “n, s or vocal“. So:

these are not accentuated: ‘imagen’, ‘volumen’ [end in n], ‘martes’, ‘lunes’ [end in s], ‘oro’, ‘palabra’, ‘camino’ [end in vowel].

these are accentuated: ‘lápiz’, ‘mártir’, ‘ángel’, ‘fútbol’, ‘cárcel’ [DO NOT end in n, s or vowel]

A word is esdrújula if…

the syllable with accent is the antepenultimate. They always have a graphic accent.

Examples: ‘cámara’, ‘rápido’, ‘análisis’, ‘música’, ‘gramática’, ‘catástrofe’, ‘didáctico’, ‘miércoles’ …

A word is sobreesdrújula if …

the syllable with accent is the one after the antepenultimate (from right to left). They always have a graphic accent.

Examples: ʻcuéntameloʼ, ‘cómprameloʼ, ʻdígaseloʼ, dócilmenteʼ, ʻábremeloʼ, ʻéticamenteʼ …

A little more about this subject

If the word has only one syllable, it is usually not accentuated (‘mar’,’pan’,’no’), except for those monosyllabic words that have two different meanings. In those cases, in order to make a difference, we graphically accentuate one of them.

Quiero una taza de té / Te he traído un regalo (I want a cup of tea / I have brought you a gift)

¿De qué país eres? / Ella quiere que le dé un beso (Where are you from? / She wants me to give her a kiss)

Vino hacia mí / Vino hacia mi cuarto (He came to me / He came to my room)