Notes from ¿Qué tal? – Stress and Written Accent Marks

Although all Spanish words of more than one syllable have a stressed vowel, most words do not have a written accent mark. Most words have the spoken stress exactly where native speakers of Spanish would predict it. These two simple rules tell you which syllable is accented when a word does not have a written accent.

  • Words that end in a vowel, -n, or -s are stressed on the next-to-last syllable.
  • i-ta-lia-no, ru-so, co-sa, e-xa-men, gra-cias, e-res, len-guas

  • Words that end in any other consonant are stressed on the last syllable.
  • us-ted, es-pa-ñol, doc-tor pa-pel, na-tu-ral, pro-fe-sor, es-tar

The written accent mark is used in the following situations.

  • A written accent mark is needed when a word does not follow the two basic rules. Look at the words in this group.
  • ta-bú
    a-le-mán
    na-ción
    in-glés
    es-tás
    Since these words end in a vowel, -n, or -s, one would predict that they would be stressed on the next-to-last syllable. But the written accent mark shows that they are in fact accented on the last syllable.

    Now look at the words in this group.
    lá-piz
    dó-lar
    ál-bum
    á-gil
    dó-cu
    Since these words end in a consonant (other than -n or -s), one would predict that they would be stressed on the last syllable. But the written accent mark shows that they are in fact accented on the next-to-last syllable.

  • All words that are stressed on the third-to-last syllable must have a written accent mark.
  • bo-lí-gra-fo
    ma-trí-cu-la
    ma-te-má-ti-cas

  • When two consecutive vowels do not form a diphthong, the vowel that receives the spoken stress will have a written accent mark. This pattern is very frequent in words that end in -ía.
  • Ma-rí-a
    dí-a
    po-li-cí-a
    bio-lo-gí-a
    as-tro-no-mí-a
    Contrast the pronunciation of those words with the following words in which the vowels i and a do form a diphthong: Patricia, Clemencia, Francia, infancia.

  • ome one-syllable words have accents to distinguish them from other words that sound like them. For example:
  • él (he) / el (the)
    sí (yes) / Si (if)
    tú (you) / tu (your)
    mí (me) / mi (my)

  • Interrogative and exclamatory words have a written accent on the stressed vowel. For example: ¿quién? (who?), ¿dónde? (where?), ¡Qué bárbaro!
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