Knowing which syllable to emphasise and where to place an accent in a Spanish word are some of the major challenges for any Spanish learner.

But learning them is worth it; Spanish is a growing language and with nearly 400 million speakers worldwide it is a useful one to learn!

Here are our Spanish grammar tips to help you master the Spanish language.

What is the Spanish Accent?

Even native Spanish speakers can find it hard, mastering spelling, even in your own language, isn’t easy for everyone.

Knowing when to place an accent on a vowel is like writing a note in music; it enriches the musicality of the sentence (and of course means you pronounce the word correctly!).   

Spanish pronunciation is affected by accents on letters. An accent on a letter can change the meaning of a word.

There are two types of accents in Spanish:

  • Tonal accent
  • Grammatical accent.

The tonal accent puts emphasis on a syllable whose vowel is pronounced with a higher tone of voice, while the grammatical accent doesn’t change the sound of the word but is used to distinguish two similar words like como (I eat) and cómo (which means ‘as’ or ‘like’)

Got it? Lets’ move on to the grammar rules

How to learn Spanish accents
Spanish accents on letters can change the pronunciation of a word

Rules of The Tonal Accent

Ever wondered what the little wave meant on top of the letter n in españa?

This is what’s called a tilde derived from the Spanish tildar, which means the action of writing an accent.

Only the vowels a, e, i, o, and u can take an accent.

However, to identify where and when to write the accent, you have to know the Spanish pronunciation and spelling.

The tonic accent is accompanied by a written accent because it indicates the place of the emphasised syllable.

If the word in Spanish ends with a vowel or the consonants "n" and "s", then the spoken emphasis is on the penultimate syllable.

For example, the words mesa, padre, cama, lunes, casa, etc. : these words end in either a vowel or an ‘n’ or an ‘s’ so the emphasis goes on the penultimate syllable (which in this case is the first syllable).

So you would say PA-dre, ME-sa, and so on.

But if the word doesn’t end in a vowel or in ‘n’ or ‘s’, and if there isn’t an accent on one of the letters, the spoken emphasis goes on the last syllable in the word:

  • Comer,
  • Papel,
  • Ayudar,
  • Libertad,
  • Ordenador.

And finally, if the tonal accent applies for another syllable in the word, this is shown by a written accent on the letter. The syllable with the written accent is the one emphasised:

  • Dicil,
  • árbol.

There are some irregularities, notably for word ending in “ión” or “ó”: población, localización, privatización, nacionalización, acción, corazón, etc.

These words end with an ‘n’ so the tonal accent or emphasis should be put on the penultimate syllable but in this case, the emphasis goes on the final syllable.

Words are also sometimes accented on the antepenultimate (before penultimate) syllable, and must, therefore, include a written accent: sílaba (syllable), bolígrafo (pen), párajo (bird), paréntesis (parenthesis), etc.

Note that in the presence of a Spanish diphthong - a combination of a strong vowel and a weak vowel - the tonic accent is marked on the strong vowel: pi-EN-so, PUE-do, PIA-no

Is that it?

No, we still have one last rule: when we go from a singular to a plural or from a masculine to a feminine, the spelling of the word - the number of syllables with - changes, and this can lose your written accent or take it (the tonic accent remains fixed on the same syllable).

This is the case with canción and canciones, inglès and inglesa, joven and venes, francés and francesa

Let's move onto another type of accent: the grammatical accent.

Learning a language in a group can help
Take a language class to improve your Spanish (Source: Pexels)

Functions of the Grammatical Accent

The grammatical accent - or diacritic accent - has three functions, and is used to:

  • To dissociate the demonstrative adjectives from the demonstrative pronouns,
  • Indicate the exclamatory and interrogative forms of certain adverbs,
  • Differentiate the grammatical nature of some homonyms.

Grammar Reminder

We distinguish the accentuation of words according to their grammatical nature: verb, noun, adverb, adjective, conjunction.

Many words are homonyms and therefore have the same spelling and pronunciation. Yet they belong to different grammatical categories.

This is the case, for example, for the words "mi", "tu", "si", "solo".

Without a written accent, "mi" is a possessive adjective, but mí (with an accent) is a personal pronoun.

Similarly, "sí" is an adverb while "if" is a conjunction of coordination.

Finally, "sólo" is an adverb, while "solo" is an adjective.

The second purpose of grammatical emphasis is to distinguish between demonstrative and personal pronouns:

Aquél, éste, ésa are pronouns, whereas, aquel, este, esa are adjectives.

Finally, the last use of this accent is to distinguish the interrogative or exclamatory pronouns and adverbs from the other usual pronouns and adverbs: cuándo, cómo, quién and cuando, como, quien.


To help make it clearer here are some example sentences:

Try reading them out loud to practice your pronunciation:

  • ¿ Dónde vive este hombre ? El hombre es Argentino, vive en Buenos Aires. Sólo vino en Francia para sus vacaciones. (Where does this man live, this man is Argentinian, he lives in Buenos Aires, he only came to France for his holidays),
  • La mujer quien hizo esta comida es una muy buena cocinera. ¿ Cuánto ingredientes puso en esa olla ? (The woman who made this dish is a very good cook, how many ingredients did she put in this meal?)
  • Me gusta muy bien esta canción, pero de todas formas, me gusto todo sobre este artista Español : canciones, música española y letras. (I really like this song, I like everything about this Spanish artist: songs, Spanish music and lyrics).

Take a trip to Spain for a language course and you’ll have the accent mastered in no time!

When to Use the Umlaut and the Tilde?

There are some words that require the addition of other written accents: the umlaut and the tilde.

The Spanish Tilde

We often see the ripple above the "n": ñ.

The tilde is a diacritical sign widely used in Spanish as well as in other languages (Cyrillic, in particular).

Did you know? Etymologically, the tilde comes from the Latin titulus, which means "title".

The medieval scribes invented it to signify the presence of an altered phoneme in contact with another, two "n" having evolved towards "gn": año is written annus in Latin.

Nowadays, the "ñ" is an independent in the Spanish alphabet, which can be found in many words: doña, malagueña, señor, señora, cañon.

Using the Umlaut

The umlaut concerns very few words, and is only found on the vowel "u" when it is located between the consonant "g", or the letters "e" and "i".

It indicates that the accentuated vowel must be pronounced distinctly from the succeeding letter.

For example, the words vergüenza (shame) and lingüistica (linguistics).

In the Hispanic world, we write these two words with an umlaut because when there is none between a "g" and an "e", the "u" becomes silent. As in the words "guerra" (war), "guiar" (guide), "seguir" (follow), "aconseguir" (counselor), "Che Guevara".

No you know everything there is to know - or almost - about the oral and written emphasis in Spanish!

Find out more about Spanish sentence structure.

If you want to learn more still, then why not Google 'spanish classes london' or search for your desired city?

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