Spanish 101: What are Those Little Accent Marks For?

I could go on and on about the virtues of learning Spanish (or any foreign language, for that matter), but let’s save that for another post. For now, let’s learn a bit about Spanish pronunciation- particularly, word stress and accent marks– to make your next trip to a Spanish-speaking country a tiny bit easier!

Luckily, Spanish pronunciation rules are quite straightforward and don’t have any exceptions (that I know of)– unlike English, which is horrific in that regard. Seriously, why are wind and wind up pronounced differently?

Anyhow, you may have noticed when seeing written Spanish that many words have accent marks in them. These accents help you to know which syllable in the word to stress. 

To understand better, let’s learn the basics when it comes to word stress.

In most Spanish words, either the last or the second-to-last syllable is stressed. 


Words that end in r, d, l, z, or y are stressed in the last syllable.

For instance:

  • All infinitive verbs
    • vivir (bee-BEER)= to live
    • coger (koh-HAIR)= to grab (Careful! This is an extremely common verb in Spain, but in some parts of Latin America it means “to fuck”)
    • cantar (kahn-TAHR)= to sing
  • Papel (pah-PEL)= paper
  • Pared (pah-RETH)= wall
  • Capaz (kah-PAHS) (or, in Spain, kah-PATH)= capable
  • Estoy (eh-STOY)= I am

Words that end in s, n, or a vowel are stressed in the second-to-last syllable.

For instance:

  • amigos (ah-MEE-gohs)= friends
  • aprenden (ah-PREN-den)= they learn
  • silla (SEE-yah)= chair
  • zapato (sah-PAH-to) (or, in Spain, tha-PAH-to)= shoe
  • gente (HEN-teh)= people


Words that do not follow the above rules are given an accent mark (tilde) to let you know where to put the emphasis in the word.

For instance:

  • Words that end in r, d, z, or l but are stressed in the second-to-last syllable
    • Examples:
      • césped (SES-peth) (or, in Spain, THES-peth)= grass
      •  váter (BAH-tehr)= toilet
      • lápiz (LAH-pees) (or, in Spain, LAH-peeth)= pencil
      • móvil (MOH-beel)= cell phone
  • Words that end in s, n, or a vowel but are stressed in the last syllable
    • Examples:
      • después (des-PWES)= after
      •  ojalá (oh-hah-LAH)= hopefully
      • también (tahm-bee-EHN)= also

Again, the tilde is to tell you where to put the stress when the word doesn’t follow the rules.

For instance:

  • Words that are stressed in the third, fourth, or whatever-to-last-syllable!
    • examples:
      • periódico (peh-ree-OH-dee-koh)= newspaper
      • víctimas (BEEK-tee-mahs)= victims
      • últimamente (OOHL-tee-ma-mehn-teh)= lately

And so on!


A Note About Words Ending in “ia”

“ia” is a diphthong, or a fancy word meaning to vowel sounds put together. It’s pronounced more or less like “yah” or “ee-yah”

Normally, a Spanish word that ends in “ia” will be pronounced as following:

  • Examples:
    • farmacia (far-MAH-see-ah) (or, in Spain, far-MAH-thee-ah)= pharmacy
    •  industria (een-DOO-stree-ah)= industry
    • familia (fah-MEE-lee-ah)= family

However, a tilde will tell you when to emphasize the “i” in “ia.”

  • Examples:
    • energía (eh-nehr-HEE-ah)= energy
    • alegría (ah-leh-GREE-ah)= joy
    • había (ah-BEE-ah)= there was/ there were


Basically, remember that an accent (tilde) tells you which syllable to stress in the word!

And if there is no tilde, just remember the rules of pronunciation!


There is probably more that I am missing, but I didn’t want this post to be too long or confusing. I am also neither a native Spanish speaker nor a Spanish teacher; this is just what I have learned from studying Spanish. Please let me know in the comments if I got anything wrong!

The pronunciation that I put in the parenthesis (ex, “des-PWES”) is also based on what would be easiest for an English speaker. Thus, I know that it is not 100% perfect; there are some sounds in Spanish that don’t exist in English. I also recognize that there are many different accents in the Spanish-speaking diaspora, and that the pronunciation I put may not reflect how everyone speaks. I only am going off of what I have been taught and what I’ve heard from my friends speaking. The vocabulary I included is also based on Spanish from Spain, because that is where I live!

Let me know in the comments if this post was helpful and if you’d like more “Spanish 101” articles!

Helpful tip: to make a tilde using an American, Mac keyboard, hold down option + e + whatever letter you want to put the tilde on!





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: