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Accent on Accents

Use of Diacritical Marks in Spanish

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The most immediately obvious difference between written Spanish and written English is Spanish's use of accents, and occasionally of umlauts (also known as diereses) and the tilde.

Beginning Spanish students usually learn right away that the main use of the accent is to help with pronunciation, and specifically in telling the speaker which syllable of a word should be stressed. However, accents also have other uses, such as distinguishing between certain homonyms, parts of speech, indicating a question, and even in separating numerals. The only use of the umlaut or dieresis is to assist in pronunciation.

Here are the basic rules for using the written accent and Spanish's other diacritical mark, the umlaut or diereses:

Pronunciation

The rules for determining which syllable should be stressed are quite simple in Spanish. Accents are used to indicate exceptions to the rules.

Here are the basic rules:

  • If a word ends in a vowel, the letter s, or the letter n, the stress is on the next to last syllable.
  • In other words without an accent, the stress is on the last syllable.
Simply put, if the stress is on a syllable other than that indicated above, an accent is used to indicate where the stress is placed. Following are a few examples, with the approximate pronunciation in phonetic English. Note that a vowel may either gain or lose an accent when a word is put into plural or singular form. See the rules on pluralization for other examples.
  • examen (egg-SAH-men)
  • exámenes (eggs-SAH-men-ess)
  • muñón (moon-YOHN)
  • muñones (moon-YOHN-ness)
  • canción (kahn-SEEOHN)
  • canciones (kahn-SEEOHN-ess)

Distinguishing homonyms

Some homonyms are distinguished by accents. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • de, of, from; first- and third-person singular subjunctive form of dar, to give)
  • el, the; él, he
  • mas, but; más, more
  • mi, my; , me;
  • se, a reflexive and indirect object pronoun used in various ways; , I know
  • si, if; , yes
  • solo, only (adjective), single, alone; sólo, only (adverb), solely
  • te, you (as an object); , tea
  • tu, your; , you

Demonstrative pronouns:

Accents also are used in Spanish to distinguish demonstrative pronouns, which are usually accented, from demonstrative adjectives, which are not. Note: The use of accents on demonstrative pronouns is not strictly necessary, according to some key authorities, unless necessary to prevent ambiguity. However, such use of accents is traditional, quite common and expected in some publications.

Talk about demonstrative parts of speech might sound like a mouthful, so it's probably best to remember that in English we're simply talking about the words this, that, these and those.

In English, those words can be either adjectives or pronouns. In "I like this book," "this" is an adjective; in "I like this," "this" is a pronoun, since it stands for a noun. Here are the same sentences in Spanish: "Me gusta este libro", I like this book. "Me gusta éste", translated as either "I like this" or "I like this one." Note that when used as a pronoun, éste traditionally has a written accent.

In Spanish the demonstrative pronouns in the singular masculine form are éste, ése, and aquél, and the corresponding adjectives are este, ese, and aquel. Although distinguishing the meanings of these pronouns goes beyond the scope of this lesson, suffice it to say here that este/éste corresponds roughly to this, while both ese/ése and aquel/aquél can be translated as that. Items with which aquel/aquél are used are farther from the speaker. "Quiero aquel libro" could be translated as "I want the book that's over there."

The following chart shows the various forms of the demonstrative pronouns (with the traditional accents) and adjectives, including the feminine and plural forms:

  • Quiero este libro, I want this book. Quiero éste, I want this one. Quiero estos libros, I want these books. Quiero éstos, I want these ones. Quiero esta camisa, I want this shirt. Quiero ésta, I want this one. Quiero estas camisas, I want these shirts. Quiero éstas, I want these ones.
  • Quiero ese libro, I want that book. Quiero ése, I want that one. Quiero esos libros, I want those books. Quiero ésos, I want those ones. Quiero esa camisa, I want that shirt. Quiero ésa, I want that one. Quiero esas camisas, I want those shirts. Quiero ésas, I want those ones.
  • Quiero aquel libro, I want that book over there. Quiero aquél, I want that one over there. Quiero aquellos libros, I want those books over there. Quiero aquéllos, I want those ones over there. Quiero aquellas camisas, I want those shirts over there. Quiero aquéllas, I want those ones over there.

Note: There are also neuter variations of these pronouns (eso, esto, and aquello), and they are not accented because there are no corresponding neuter adjective forms. The neuter forms generally refer to unknown objects or are used when there is no specific reference to a noun. They also are used in certain idiomatic phrases. Acuérdense de eso, remember that. Por eso/esto, for that/this reason. Es por eso, that's why.

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