Stress and Accentuation

The stress of a word follows two simple rules. Understanding them is imperative for pronouncing words and understanding why written accent marks are sometimes necessary:
  • If a word ends in any consonant other than n or s, the natural stress will be on the last syllable.

  • If a word ends in a vowel or the letter n or s, the natural stress is on the next‐to‐last syllable.

Accent marks may seem to be randomly placed in a word, but there are actually very easy rules to explain why they are used. The three basic rules to remember are:

  • There is only one kind of accent.

  • There is only one accent in any word.

  • An accent can be placed only on a vowel, never a consonant.

The main purpose of writing an accent mark is to indicate that this particular word is supposed to be stressed somewhere other than the syllable where it would be stressed naturally if it followed the rules. This leads to some rules within the rules. For example, there are hundreds of words that are cognates of English words that end in –tion, like “nation,” “liberation,” and “condition.” These words end in –ción in Spanish: nación, liberación, andcondición. The rule states that a word that ends in an n has the natural stress on the next‐to‐last syllable, and these words are supposed to be stressed on the next‐to‐the‐last syllable like in English. But, because they do not follow the general rule, an accent mark is written on the last vowel, the o, to show where the stress should be pronounced.

The previous lesson on diphthongs and the strong and weak vowels becomes important when you are trying to decide whether or not a word needs a written accent mark. Remember that a diphthong is the single syllable created when one strong and one weak vowel or two weak vowels are pronounced together. That is why there is no accent on the word iglesia: The i is acting like the consonant y, so the diphthong ia creates a single syllableya sound at the end of the word, and the natural stress is on the next‐to‐last syllable since the word ends in a vowel.

The second reason for writing an accent mark is to indicate that the weaker vowel is to be pronounced as well as the stronger vowel. This obviously creates two separate syllables, and the stress will be on the accented syllable.

Understanding these rules not only helps you know whether or not to write an accent when spelling a word that you hear, it will also help you pronounce a word that you are reading with the stress on the correct syllable. This will not only remind you to stress the word on that syllable, but will also help you remember that the word has an accent mark.

The third reason for writing an accent mark has nothing to do with pronunciation. It is used to differentiate between two words that would otherwise be spelled the same. For example, the word si means if, but the word means yes. Of course, when spoken, only the context of the sentence will provide a clue as to which of the two words is appropriate.