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How to Use Accent Marks in Spanish: An Easy Guide

Hola, ¿cómo estás? Even in the simplest of Spanish greetings, we find a few stress marks. If you’re just starting to learn the language and you have a feeling you’ll never be able to understand (let alone apply!) accentuation rules in Spanish, we are here to help. With our simple guide on how to use accent marks in Spanish, you will be stressing words like Cervantes in no time.

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What is stress?

In linguistics, stress is the relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word, or to certain words in a phrase or sentence. For example, French words tend to be stressed on the last syllable: amour (love), travaillé (work), san (health). English, on the other hand, tends to be much more flexible, with words being stressed in different syllables: bicycle, assertion, unique.

In the Spanish language, stress is so important that it has the power to alter the meaning of a word or phrase depending on what syllable is given more strength and volume. For instance, the word “papa”, stressed on the second-to-last syllable, means “potato”, whereas the word “papá”, with a stress on the last syllable, is the most common word for ‘dad’.

But, what is the difference between stress and stress marks or accent marks in Spanish? More importantly, is there a simple way of knowing how to use accent marks in Spanish?

Let’s find out.

Types of stress in Spanish

As you may have noticed, the word “papá” (dad) has a stress mark, while “papa” (potato) doesn’t. But this doesn’t mean that “papa” is not stressed. In fact, it would be impossible for a word of two or more syllables to not have stress. The reason why only one of them is orthographically stressed is that, in the Spanish language, there are certain rules on how and when to use accent marks in Spanish.

In order to understand these rules on how to use accent marks in Spanish, we need to talk about how words are classified according to their stress pattern.

There are four main groups:

Oxytone wordspalabras agudas: these words are stressed on the last syllable: amor (love), canción (song), valor (courage), perdón (forgiveness)

Paroxytone wordspalabras graves: these words are accented on the second-to-last syllable: cárcel (prison), amigo (friend), árbol (tree), pelo (hair).

Proparoxytone wordspalabras esdrújulas: these words are stressed on the third-to-last syllable: bula (fable), murciélago (bat), bografo (pen), gárgola (gargoyle)

Over-proparoxytone wordspalabras sobresdrújulas: these words are accented on any syllable before the third-to-last syllable: blicamente (publicly), cilmente (easily), muéstramelo (show it to me), júraselo (swear it to them).

How to use accent marks in Spanish

Though the number of syllables in the third and the fourth group above may lead you to believe that these are the most complicated types, in fact, they are the easiest: proparoxytone and over-proparoxytone words always carry accent marks in Spanish.

In other words, if a word is stressed on the third-to-last syllable or any syllable before that, you should always write the acute accent ( ´ ) on the accented vowel: bula, blicamente.

Oxytone and paroxytone words, on the other hand, must meet specific requirements in order to be orthographically accented.

Oxytone words: Where to put the accent in Spanish words stressed on the last syllable

Oxytone words, i.e., words that are stressed on the last syllable, only carry a stress mark when they end in the following letters:

  • N: jarrón (vase), corazón (heart), balón (ball), crayón (crayon)
  • S: autobús (bus), atrás (behind), japonés (Japanese), cortés (corteous)
  • VOWELS: a (here), ca (coffee), colibrí (hummingbird), comió (ate), iglú (igloo)

Oxytone words that end in other letters, such as color (colour) or arroz (rice), do not carry a stress mark.

Paroxytone words: Where to put the accent in Spanish words stressed on the second-to-last syllable

Paroxytone words also need to meet a few special requirements to be orthographically stressed. Before placing an accent mark above a paroxytone word, make sure it doesn’t end in any of the letters that we mentioned above: N, S, or a vowel.

Yes, that’s right, it’s the exact opposite. While oxytone words are orthographically stressed only when they end in these letters, paroxytone words are stressed only when they don’t!

Let’s see a few examples of words that are accented on the second-to-last syllable but do not carry a stress mark.

  • N: resumen (summary), cardumen (shoal), volumen (volume), gluten (gluten)
  • S: ojos (eyes), verdes (green), semanas (weeks), todos (everyone)
  • VOWELS: baya (berry), calle (street), espagueti (spaghetti), monstruo (monster), tribu (tribe)

So, when are paroxytone words orthographically stressed?

If a word is accented on the second-to-last syllable and doesn’t end in N, S, or a vowel, it should always be stressed: álef (aleph), críquet (cricket), piz (pencil). However, these examples are rare exceptions. In Spanish, there is a marked tendency for paroxytone words to end in two specific letters: L and R.

  • L: frágil (fragile), cárcel (fluorine), mármol (marble), dicil (difficult)
  • R: cadáver (corpse), carácter (character), lar (dolar), cáncer (cancer)

Are you feeling a bit confused? Don’t worry. Here is a summary of everything we’ve said so far:

of stress
Oxytone Paroxytone Proparoxytone Over-proparoxytone
Where is the word
On the last syllable On the second-to-last syllable On the third-to-last syllable Before the third-to-last syllable
When does it carry a
stress mark?
When it ends in N, S, or a VOWEL. When it doesn’t end in N,
S, or a VOWEL.
Examples Canción














Other types of orthographic stress

If you have a very good memory, you will remember that we started this article by using the greeting “¿cómo estás?” (how are you?). In this common phrase, we can see an oxytone word (estás), which carries a stress mark before it ends in an S just as we explained above.

But, what about the word quién (who)? Why is that one also stressed?

Here is a list of words that always carry stress marks in Spanish, regardless of how they are spelled:

Interrogative words:

Qué – What
Quién – Who
Cómo – How
Por qué – Why
Dónde – Where
Cuál – Which

Note: These words are only orthographically stressed only when they have an interrogative function. If they are used as connectors, they are unaccented. Compare these two examples:

Interrogative: ¿Dónde está el supermercado? – Where is the supermarket?

Connector: Este es el sitio donde nací. – This is the place where I was born.

One-syllable words:

As a rule, one-syllable words do not carry stress marks. However, there are a few one-syllable words that take a ‘diacritic’ stress mark, which is used to differentiate them from words with the same spelling but different meanings:

Sí: Yes
Si: If

Sí, acepto. (Yes, I do)
Si quieres, te llevo. (If you want, I can give you a ride).

Él: He
El: The

Él es mi padre. (He is my father)
El día está nublado. (The day is cloudy)

Tú: You
Tu: Your

Tú eres muy amable. (You are very kind)
Tu casa es enorme. (Your house is huge)

Mí: Me
Mi: Mine

Eso es para mí. (That’s for me)
Mi trabajo es difícil (My job is hard)

The hiatus

In phonetics, hiatus occurs when two vowels that appear together are pronounced in different syllables. For example, saeta: sa-e-ta (arrow).

There are two types of hiatus:

  • Those formed by two open vowels (A, E, O), which follow the general rules of stress: héroe: hé-ro-e (hero); caoba: ca-o-ba (mahogany)
  • Those formed when an open vowel (A, E, O) appears next to a closed vowel (I, U) or vice versa.

When the second type of hiatus occurs, the accent falls on the closed syllable (María: Ma-rí-a) which carries orthographic stress as a result even if general rules of accentuation are not met.

More examples:

Egoísmo (selfishness)
Filosofía (philosophy)
Actúo (I act)
Frío (cold)
Dúo duet)

Due to ‘hiatus’, all the words above are orthographically stressed even if they are paroxytone words that end in a vowel.

As you can see, there are quite a few different rules when it comes to how to use accent marks in Spanish. But with a little practice, you’ll be able to get the hang of it in no time! As happens with Spanish punctuation, the most important thing is not to get too bogged down in the details and to do as much reading and writing in Spanish as possible.

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Would you like to practise Spanish accentuation with a native teacher? At Listen & Learn, we offer one-to-one courses with Spanish tutors that will help you understand the intricacies of Spanish marks while allowing you to explore your interests and encouraging you to pursue your learning goals.

All you have to do is send us a message and we’ll pair you with a qualified teacher for a personalised lesson based on your style and current level.