Accent marks are really helpful for Spanish learners—they might be a pain to remember, but they tell you how to pronounce a word and they even help you tell words apart! Here are the 3 ways you'll use accent marks in Spanish.

1. Spanish accent marks show you what to stress

In Spanish, accent marks tell you which part of the word will be said with the most emphasis, a bit louder and longer than the rest of the word. Accent marks only appear above vowels, as in á, é, í, ó, and ú. The vowels themselves are pronounced the same, whether they have an accent or not, but the accents let you know where the stress is!

Here are some examples:

  • el sofá (the couch) is pronounced soFA, with the stress on fa (in English, we put the stress on SOfa—the opposite of Spanish!)
  • el teléfono (the phone) is pronounced teLEfono, with the stress on le
  • la panadería (the bakery) is pronounced panadeRIa, with the stress on ri
  • la decisión (the decision) is pronounced decisiON, with the stress on on
  • útil (useful) is pronounced Util, with the stress on u

2. Spanish accent marks help you tell words apart

Accent marks are also used in Spanish to distinguish some words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Usually these words are really short—just one or two syllables—and the accent lets you know which word is meant. Here are the most common examples:

  • mi vs. mí: mi without an accent means "my" (mi casa "my house"), while with an accent is used after a preposition to mean "me" (para mí "for me")
  • tu vs. tú: tu without an accent means "your" (tu casa "your house"), while with an accent means "you" (tú estás aquí "you are here")
  • el vs. él: el without an accent means "the" for masculine nouns (el libro "the book"), while él with an accent mark means "he" (él está aquí "he is here*)
  • se vs. sé: se without an accent can mean "oneself" (él se ducha "He showers himself"), while with an accent means "I know" (Yo sé la respuesta "I know the answer")
  • que vs. qué: que without an accent means "that" to connect sentences (espero que vengas pronto "I hope that you come soon*), while qué with an accent means the question word "what" (¿Qué quieres hacer? "What do you want to do?")

In fact, qué isn't the only question word with an accent mark—all question words in Spanish have accent marks! And they also all have versions without a written accent when they aren't used as a question. For example:

  • ¿Dónde está tu libro favorito?* (Where is your favorite book?) vs. Es la calle donde nos conocimos (It's the street where we met)
  • ¿Cuándo vamos a la fiesta?* (When are we going to the party?) vs. Voy a la fiesta cuando deje de llover (I'm going to the party when it stops raining)

3. Spanish accent marks separate letters from numbers

Occasionally you'll see the letter o surrounded by numbers, and to help make it clear that it's a letter (and not the number 0) it will be written with an accent mark. For example, Mi perro tiene 3 ó 4 años (My dog is 3 or 4 years old) has an accent on the ó to make it clear that my dog isn't 304 years old!

Why don't all Spanish words have accents?

Even though all Spanish words have stress on one part or another, not all of them have accent marks! In Spanish, there are a few rules about which syllable, or part of a word, is stressed, and if a word is an exception to a rule, it gets an accent mark.

Use these rules as a pronunciation cheat sheet:

If you see... The syllable that's stressed is... Example
an accent mark the syllable with the accent mark el árbol (the tree) = ARbol
no accent mark and the word ends with "d," "l," "r," or "z" the last syllable el amor (the love) = aMOR
no accent mark and the word ends with any other letter the second-to-last syllable la manta (the blanket) = MANta

For more tips and tricks about Spanish, check out all our learning posts, including our post about Spanish pronunciation!