Unlike many other languages, there is not a big variety of different Spanish accent marks. In fact there’s only two true accent marks – the acute accent, which can appear on all vowels and looks like this: á, é, í, ó, ú; and the diaeresis, which only appears on a u (and only after a g and before an i and an e), and looks like this: ü.
But wait – there’s another weird mark in Spanish that we also need to know when learning Spanish, right?
That squiggly n moustache thingy (otherwise known as the virgulilla of the ñ, or enye) is what I’m talking about.
While it isn’t technically a Spanish accent mark, it is an important symbol in Spanish writing.
So we’ll talk about that, too.
Through this post, you’ll finally understand the mysteries of:
- How to know when to use a Spanish accent mark
- How to know when to use ñ
- How to type properly and easily in Spanish with just your English keyboard.
Spanish accent mark 1: acute ’
The tilde is extremely common. If you’ve ever looked at a Spanish text you’ll know what I’m talking about.
It’s impossible to avoid. And, although its usage in casual writing by native speakers is diminishing, it does matter. I would argue it actually matters more for Spanish learners. This is because the accent mark tells you how to pronounce the word – it indicates where the stress is on the word.
And when you are learning new words, it is important you can figure out how to pronounce them correctly, too.
So let’s see how that works:
How to know when to use the acute Spanish accent mark
Okay, before we go into how and when to use the Spanish accent mark, we first need a bit of background into Spanish stress rules.
Stress is the term used for the syllable of the word that gets the most emphasis – the part of the word that is enunciated more. When spoken, it is generally louder and longer than all of the other symbols.
Like Spanish, English also has a stressed syllable in basically every word, although for us a lot of it is rote memorization, whereas for Spanish, we can learn how to know which part of each word to stress.
You see, Spanish is nothing like English in that its orthography and pronunciation are highly interrelated and highly regulated.
So learn the rules once, and then Spanish reading and writing will always be a breeze.
The Spanish rules for stress pronunciation are as follows:
The general rule is that the penultimate syllable is stressed (that is, the syllable before the last).
For example, in the words ahora, mundo, desculpe, desayuno, apenas, hablan, and interesante, the vowel before the last is the one we put the stress on.
There are a number of exceptions to the general stress rule:
- Single syllable words can obviously not be stressed on the penultimate syllables. In these words, the stress technically falls automatically to the only syllable of the word. But single syllable words are generally functional words that don’t carry much meaning. So these words are not usually emphasized when pronounced. Think about words like yo, la, en, a, y, and o. They are often said quickly and with minimal emphasis.
- When the word ends in -d, -l, -r or -z, the final syllable is stressed instead of the penultimate. In the words dificultad, verdad, general, ilegal, amor, lavar, niñez, and escacez, for example, the last syllable is pronounced more strongly than the rest.
- “U and I are weak”. This is how I learned it at high school and it’s a catchy word play so I’ve never forgotten. Basically, the letters -u and -i in Spanish often appear next to other vowels in words. When this happens, the two vowels together are counted as just one syllable for stress rule purposes. When that syllable is in a stressed position, the stress falls on to the vowel other than -u or -i (i.e: the strong vowel!). This is why in words where the vowel combo comes at the end, such as criteria, insomnia, mutuo, and lengua, the stress is technically on the antipenultimate syllable (i.e: two before the last). However, when the vowel combo is in the second-to-last syllable, like in aula, tatuaje, aire, and hierro, the stress is once again in that second-to-last syllable, regardless of the order of the vowels.
So, when there are no Spanish accent marks involved, stress will always follow the rules set out above.
But sometimes, stress needs to fall on other syllables that don’t align with those rules. That is where Spanish accent marks come in.
If the pronunciation and orthography rules are as aligned as I say, then why is this even necessary?
Well, it’s because the pronunciation influences the orthography, and not the other way around. So the phonological rules of Spanish allow stress patterns different to those set out in the general rules. And because Spanish orthography is so neat and precise (unlike * ahem * English…), there needs to be a way to show that in writing.
So long story short, any violation of those general rules will be indicated with a Spanish accent mark, the acute mark.
The acute mark basically has overriding power, so if you see it in a word, you ignore the default rules and put your stress on that syllable.
Here are some common situations where the Spanish accent mark is used:
- To distinguish single syllable words. In some cases there are two identical words which, if it weren’t for the accent marks, would look exactly the same. Their functions are also close enough that they could be easily confused. So an accent mark is added to one to distinguish them. Look at tu vs tú, mi vs mí, el vs él. If you know which one is which, you might have noticed that pronoun trumps determiner, every time. This doesn’t happen that much, just because there aren’t many single syllable words in Spanish. But these little words crop up all the time, so it’s good to know which is which.
- Nouns and adjectives ending in -n are often stressed on the last syllable, and therefore require an accent mark. There are a huge number of these. In fact, I can barely think of any nouns or adjectives where it’s not the case. These are words like dormilón, cansón, aficción, talón, tiburón, situación, and balcón.
- Vowel combos where the stress is on the -i. As you’ll recall, -u and -i in vowel combos are by default not stressed so we really need Spanish accent marks whenever they are stressed. Which in the case of -i, turns out to be a lot. Look at words like alegría, panadería, fotografía, vacío, and envío.
- In vos and vosotros verb conjugations in the present tense, the last syllable is always stressed. Thus, a tilde must be used. You can see this by looking at any Spanish verb conjugation table, but a few examples are lavás & laváis, tenés & tenéis, abrís, etc.
- In future tense and conditional conjugations, once again, we see Spanish accent marks as part of the default form. Again, you’ll notice this immediately in any conjugation table. But to give you an idea, there’s pondrá & pondrías, hablará & hablarías, jugaré & jugaría, etc. The tilde is especially important to use for the future tense, because without it, it looks exactly like the imperfect subjunctive tense.
- In question words, Spanish accent marks must be applied. Spanish question words also function as conjunctions, so there needs to be a distinction between the two. So, when a question is being asked, as well as the famous ¿, you will also always see an accent on the question word. These are qué, cuándo, quién/quiénes, cuál/cuáles, por qué, cómo, and cuánto/a/cuántos/as. If you’ll remember the stress rules from before, none of these words actually need the accent on them to indicate their stressed syllables. Much like the single syllable words, they use a tilde to distinguish them between similar words that are otherwise spelt the same. Consider “¿Cuántas personas había en el museo?” vs “No sé cuantas personas había en el museo.”
Spanish accent mark 2: diaeresis ü
This accent mark is so infrequent that I actually completely forgot about in the first draft of this article.
The diaeresis not only appears only in very specific circumstances, but it is also often omitted by native speakers in casual writing. However, like pretty much any symbol or letter in the Spanish language, it does serve an important purpose.
How to know when to use the diaeresis in Spanish
There is another important spelling rule in Spanish which comes into play here. And it all has to do with the sneaky letter -g.
You may be aware that the letter -g in Spanish has two sounds – the hard -g sound just like in the English “game”; and the soft -g which sounds more like the English -h (but which can be more throaty depending on the dialect). So, how do we know which pronunciation of the -g to use when we see it written?
The Spanish rules for pronunciation of -g are as follows:
- -g followed by -a, -u or -o gives a “hard g” sound. This is the case in words such as gallina, orgullo, and agotar.
- -g followed by -e and -i gives the “soft g” sound. You can see this in words such as general and girar.
- When you want a “soft g” sound followed by the letters a, u, and o, the letter -j is used instead of -g, as in arranjar, justo, and cajón)
- When you want a “hard g” sound followed by the letters -e and -i, a -u is placed directly after the -g. The -u is not pronounced, it is simply performing the function of hardening the -g. This is what is happening in words such as guiar, guerra, and guitarra.
This system works great in about 99% of -g scenarios.
However, sometimes you need a hard g to be followed by an -e or -i and for the -u sound to be present. This is where our diaeresis gets to work its magic.
So the little dots in ü are basically just the -u saying “pronounce me!”
So to recap, the diaeresis is only every present in Spanish:
- on the letter
This comes up in common words like vergüenza, bilingüe, lingüística and pingüina.
Spanish accent mark 3: virgulilla of ñ
The ˜ is less of an accent mark than -ñ is a letter in itself (which is how the Spanish language treats it).
In Spanish, this symbol does not appear with any other letter. The “enye” crops up fairly regularly, but it’s not all over the place, so you need to remember to use it when you have to. Unlike the accent mark, the ˜ is very rarely omitted in written Spanish, even the most casual txts.
That’s because without it, it reads as a different sound (i.e: a normal n).
How to know when to use the virgulilla:
Thankfully, this is a lot more straightforward than the Spanish acute accent. Essentially, any time we have the sound “ny” (IPA: nj) in Spanish, this is spelt with their special letter enye (ñ).
The Spanish just decided they needed a whole letter for that particular sound, for some reason. It’s not even like it’s a particularly common sound compared to other languages. Words that begin with this letter are particularly uncommon. It’s just a different sound that has its own letter, represented by a letter with a symbol. It’s that simple.
Examples of words which contain ñ include niño, añorar, español, pequeño and ñoquis.
How to type the Spanish accent marks on your keyboard
- Install the United States International Keyboard (see video below) – you can install it on Mac just as easily.
- Choose it as your preferred keyboard language in your keyboard settings.
- For acute, press ‘ (single quote), then the vowel you need to put an accent on. For example, ‘ + a = á
- For the diaeresis, press ” (shift + ‘), then press u. So ” + u = ü
- For virgulilla of enye, press ~ (shift + the ` to the left of the 1), then press -n. So ~ + n = ñ
The United States International Keyboard isn’t a physical keyboard, it’s a keyboard setting which allows you to type more on the keyboard you have.
Things like the Spanish Keyboard unfortunately presume you have a physical Spanish keyboard, so a lot of the buttons you press will come up as something totally different (beleive me, I’ve been there).
The US International Keyboard allows you to keep your keyboard as a normal English keyboard while making it easier for you to type Spanish accent marks.
So you can feel free to use it for everything, even if you are just typing in English. It works for me.
However, there are a few things that take some getting used to. Mainly, when you’ll want to type quote/single quote (” / ’), if followed by a vowel, it will automatically accentuate it.
If you want the actual punctuation mark to show up, you will need to press the spacebar after pressing the punctuation mark. If you want a space to show up after that, you will need to press the spacebar again.
Note: with the US International Keyboard, you can also type your upside down exclamation marks and question marks.
For ¿, just press shift + alt/option + the ?/ key. For ¡, you just need alt/option + the 1 key. And just like that, you can turn those punctuation marks on their heads!
And that’s pretty much all there is to know about Spanish accent marks!
Luckily for Spanish learners, Spanish accent marks are (unlike French accent marks) reasonably straightforward specimens guided by logical rule following.
So hopefully this guide has clarified anything you were unsure about.
If there’s anything you’re still not clear on, though, leave a comment below!