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.
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.
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.
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.
3. If a word violates either of these two rules, it will need a tilde to show the reader where to pronounce the word.
4. Also, if a word is stressed on any syllable other than the last or second to last, it will always require a tilde.
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.
All interrogative (question) words have a written accent to signal that someone is asking a question and not just making a statement.
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.