Written Accent Marks (Tildes)

What are all those little "accents" in Spanish for? Tildes  (written accent marks) let the reader know where to place the intonation when a rule is broken. Without the tilde, we would just have to guess like we do in English:

For example: I love that record. vs. He loves to record music.

When to Use an Accent

There are lots of heteronyms, or words that are written identically but have different pronunciation, like record in English and the rules for pronunciation are a little vague. But not in Spanish! Knowing the four categories of words makes positioning the tilde super easy. There are only two rules if you already know your word stress rules.

  • Esdrújulas  and sobresdrújulas  always have a tilde on the syllable with the most stress.
  • Agudas  and graves  have a tilde when they violate the intonation rules below.

Basic Intonation Rules

1. If the stress is on the last syllable (aguda) and the word ends in a vowel, -n, or -s, it must have a tilde.

  • Panamá 
  • ratón 
  • cortés 

2. If the stress is on the penultimate syllable (grave) and the word ends in a consonant other than -n or -s, it must have a tilde.

Expanded Intonation Rules

If you don't know what agudas, graves, esdrújulas and sobresdrújulas are, you can read our article on word stress, or continue reading below.

1. Words that end in a vowel, an -n, or an -s will be stressed on the second to last (penultimate) syllable and will not have a tilde.

  • ga’-to 
  • ca’-sa 
  • za-pa’-tos 
  • o-ri’-gen 

2. Words that end in a consonant other than -n or -s will be stressed on the last syllable and will not have a tilde.

  • doc-tor’ 
  • ciu-dad’ 
  • a-zul’ 
  • ha-blar’ 

3. If a word violates either of these two rules, it will need a tilde to show the reader where to pronounce the word.

  • -cil  - This word ends in a consonant (so it would be stressed on the last syllable, but it is stressed on the penultimate syllable, so it needs a tilde.)

  • es-  - This word ends in a vowel (so it would be stressed on the penultimate syllable, but it is stressed on the last vowel, so it needs a tilde.)

4. Also, if a word is stressed on any syllable other than the last or second to last, it will always require a tilde.

  • A--ri-ca  - This word ends in a vowel (so it would be stressed on the penultimate syllable, but it is stressed on the 3rd to last (ante-penultimate) syllable, so it needs a tilde.)

  • Mán-da-me-lo  - This word ends in a vowel (so it would be stressed on the penultimate syllable, but it is stressed on the 4th to last (ante-penultimate) syllable, so it needs a tilde.

Exceptions

Now, if you've ever taken a language course before, you know there are always (dreaded word) exceptions to the rules. Spanish has fewer exceptions than a lot of languages. These are all here because the tilde differentiates two words that are spelled and pronounced the same way, but mean different things. It's all obvious in context, but when writing things out, it's nice to have the extra little signal up there.

Possessive adjectivesPersonal pronouns
mi  (my)  (me)
tu  (your)  (you)
Mi amor me dio la rosa a .
My love gave me a rose.
 
tienes un gato. Es tu gato.
You have a cat. It is your cat.
 

Interrogatives/Question Words

All interrogative (question) words have a written accent to signal that someone is asking a question and not just making a statement.

SpanishEnglish
¿Cómo?
 
How/What?
¿Cuál(es)?
 
Which (ones)?
¿Cuándo?
 
When?
¿Cuánto(s)/a(s)?
 
How much/many?
¿Dónde?
 
Where?
¿Qué?
 
What?
¿Quién?
 
Who/whom?
¿Por qué?
 
Why?

There are also several other words that "just have" accents to differentiate them from other similar words. The tilde makes a big difference when written, but in speech, although they share the same sounds, the one with the tilde is pronounced with more stress.

With tildeWithout tildeExampleEnglish translation
él  (he)el  (the)
A él le gusta el queso.
 
He likes the cheese.
  (tea)te  (you - dir. obj.)
Te recomiendo que pruebas el té.
 
I recommend that you try the tea.
  (yes)si  (if)
Sí, quiero ir al restaurante, pero sólo si tienen pizza.
 
Yes, I want to go to the restaurant but only if they have pizza.
más  (more)mas  (but)
Quiero más chocolate, mas es mala idea.
 
I want more chocolate, but it's a bad idea.
aún  (still, yet)aun  (even)
Aun después de una cita buena, aún él no me ha llamado.
 
Even after a good date, he still has not called me.
cómo  (how/what)como  (like, as)
¿Cómo se llama él? ¿Es alto como Pablo?
 
What is his name? Is he tall like Pablo?
sólo  (only)solo  (alone)
Iré sólo si tú vas también; no quiero ir solo.
 
I will go only if you go; I don't want to go alone.

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