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Written accents in Spanish

The importance of written accents in Spanish

As a Spanish student, it is important to recognise the importance of the "tilde" (i.e., the written accent ´) that we see written above the vowel in some words. Not only do these accents tell you where the word must be stressed when it is pronounced, but in some cases, the presence or absence of a written accent can change the meaning of a word. 

Let's see some of the most common cases:

  • él (personal pronoun) vs el (definite article)
Él quiere el coche negro.
He wants the black car.
  • (noun) vs te (indirect object pronoun) 
El camarero te sirve un con leche.
The waiter is serving you a [cup of] tea with milk.
  • porque (because) vs por qué (why)

No entiendo por qué no me hablas.
I don't understand why you are not talking to me.

No te hablo porque eres muy egoista.
I am not talking to you because you are very selfish.

  • (yes) vs si (if) 

, debo ir al médico pronto.
Yes I must go to the doctor soon.

Si voy al médico pronto tendré las medicinas necesarias.
If I go to the doctor soon I will have the necessary medicine.

  • como (conjunction) vs cómo (interrogative adverb) 

En el colegio puedo vestir como yo quiera.
I can dress as I like at school.

¿Cómo debes vestir en el colegio? 
How must you dress at school?

  • que (conjunction) vs qué (interrogative pronoun) 

Me alegra que os hayáis casado por fin.
I am glad that you finally married.

¿Qué vas a cenar esta noche? 
What are you having for dinner this evening?

  • cuando (conjunction) vs cuándo (interrogative adverb)

Cuando sea mayor quiero ser ingeniero.
When I am older I want to be an engineer.

¿Cuándo despegará el avión?
When will the plane take off?

  • does "solo" have a written accent? 

Depending on when you learnt Spanish, you may have been taught that the word solo needs a written accent (sólo) when it is used as an adverb, (i.e. when it can be swapped for "solamente/únicamente" / the English translation is "only"). The most recent decision (March 2023) from the Real Academia Española (RAE) is: only use a written accent if the context is ambiguous  i.e. if it could be understood to both mean "only" but also "alone/lonely" because the context is unclear, then it is optional to use the tilde on the adverbial form: sólo. Be aware that the Real Academia Española had previously stated in 2010 that a written accent in solo was never required.

In any case, the best rule to remember is that you can never be wrong when you do not use the written accent!

Me siento muy solo sin ti. 
I feel very lonely without you.

Solo quiero un café.
I only want a coffee.

An example of ambiguity is:

Yo trabajo solo los lunes y los martes.

I work only? / alone? on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Here, the context does not help you understand if the speaker means he works only/just 2 days a week, or if during 2 of the (many) days that he works he finds himself alone, with no colleagues. In this case it's optional to use sólo (with written accent) if the meaning is adverbial, i.e. it means "only" :

Yo trabajo sólo los lunes y los martes. (= Yo trabajo únicamente/solamente los lunes y los martes.)

  

WITH TENSES

Often we find a conjugated verb in two different tenses with the same spelling but because they are pronounced differently, one has a written accent and the other doesn't. Have a look and listen to some examples:

  • hablo (present tense) vs habló (preterite tense)

Yo hablo mucho.I talk a lot.

Ella habló ayer con su jefe.She spoke with her boss yesterday.

  • hablara (imperfect subjunctive) vs hablará (simple future tense)

Yo esperaba que ella hablara con sus padres pronto.I was hoping that she spoke with her parents soon.

Ella hablará con sus padres esta noche.She will speak with her parents this evening.

 CASES WITH DEMONSTRATIVES AND VERBS

  • esta (demonstrative adjective) vs está (verb estar in the present)
Esta chica está cansada.
This girl is tired.
  • este (demonstrative adjective) vs esté (verb estar in the present subjunctive)
No quiero que este chico esté triste.
I don't want this boy to be sad.

Just like with solo/sólo, depending on when you learnt Spanish you may have been taught that demonstratives need a written accent when used as pronouns: éste, ése, aquél, etc. The most recent decision by the RAE in March 2023 states that the written accent can be used optionally in cases where it is used as a pronoun and misinterpretation/ ambiguity is possible due to unclear context:

For example, the following phrase can be interpreted two ways:

¿Por qué cantaron esas canciones tan antiguas?
Why did those [women, girls..] sing such old songs?
Why did they sing those very old songs?

If the intention of the speaker when saying this is the first translation, referring to "those people, women, girls..." used as a pronoun, the written accent is optional:

¿Por qué cantaron ésas canciones tan antiguas?

 

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