As you’ve probably noticed, written Spanish has accents all over the place. They are not random, there are specific rules regarding their use. Basically, there are four types of accents:
1. Accents based on the General Accent Rules (we’ll see them in a second).
2. Special accents used to “break a diphthong” (i.e. to separate two vowels—and one of them is always either ‘i’ or ‘u’—that would by default be pronounced as a single syllable, as in día or púa).
3. Special accents used in one of the versions of two monosyllabic homophones in order to differentiate them (tú/tu, té/te, mí/mi, etc.)
4. Special accents that the interrogative pronouns always have (qué, dónde, cuál, cuándo, etc.)
Type 2 is tricky, and we'll explain those in a different article. Type 4 is pretty straightforward, and for type 3, well, you just have to know which ones are written with an accent. The vast majority of written accents that we see are type 1 (they are based on the General Accent Rules).
General Accent Rules
Both in Spanish and in English, all words have naturally a stressed syllable, which sounds stronger than the non-stressed ones: CARdigan, SÁbado, CULprit, MEsa, perHAPS, maRRÓN.
And, also both in English and in Spanish, the stressed syllable is always either the last one, the second-to-last one, or the third-to-last one. The difference is that, in Spanish, we'll always need to write an accent mark in the following cases:
1. For words in which the last syllable is phonetically stressed (English examples: ago, perhaps, mature; Spanish examples: cantar, canción, café, nariz):
-We’ll write an accent mark only if the word ends in vowel, ’n’ or ’s’. In the previous examples, we see how ‘canción’ and ‘café’ have an accent, while ‘cantar’ and ‘nariz’ don’t have one.
2. For words in which the second-to-last syllable is phonetically stressed (English examples: English, table, behavior; Spanish examples: casa, manzana, árbol, ángel):
-We’ll write an accent mark only if the word does not end in vowel, ’n’ or ’s’. In the previous examples, we see how ‘árbol’ and ‘ángel’ have an accent, while ‘manzana’ and ‘casa’ don’t have one.
3. For words in which the third-to-last syllable is phonetically stressed (English examples: cardigan, trinity, courtesy; Spanish examples: sábado, película, estábamos):
-We’ll always write an accent mark on the strong syllable.
Practice - Listen to the following audio track and try to spell the words in Spanish.
You will hear the Spanish translations of the following words: camera, purple, astronaut, jail, watch, coal, I sang, emotion, problem, cortex, calculus, table, chair, sofa, toner. Each word will be pronounced twice.
(Find the correct spellings below.)
Correct spellings for Practice - Listen to the following audio track and try to spell the words in Spanish: Cámara, púrpura, astronauta, cárcel, reloj, carbón, canté, emoción, problema, córtex, cáclculo, mesa, silla, sofá, tóner.