Acute Accent: á, é, í, ó, ú

Tilde ~ Acento agudo

The Spanish acute accent* (á, é, í, ó, ú) serves two purposes:

1. Word stress

The acute accent indicates that the normal rules of word stress are being overridden. Here are the normal rules with examples of words that follow them as well as words that need accents because they break the rules.

Exceptions
a) Words that end in a consonant other than N and S have stress on the last syllable. calor
estoy
salud
abril
árbol
lápiz
b) Words that end in a vowel, S, or N have stress on the penultimate syllable. agosto
nosotros
señora
sábado
jesús
perdón
c) Most two-vowel combinations diphthong unless one of them has an accent. cuarto
diciembre
junio
mediodía
miércoles
frío

Note: When object pronouns are attached to verbs, the acute accent is used to maintain correct word stress.

2. Distinction

Acute accents also distinguish between otherwise identical words:

aun even, including adverb vs aún still adverb
de of, about preposition he gave from dar (subjunctive)
el the definite article él he subject pronoun
mas but conjunction más more quantity
mi my possessive adjective me pronoun
o or conjunction ó or (when used with numbers: 2 ó 3)
se oneself reflexive pronoun I know
be
from saber
from ser (imperative)
si if conjunction yes
oneself
adverb
pronoun
te you, yourself pronoun tea noun
tu your possessive adjective you subject pronoun

2a. Interrrogation

In addition to the above are all interrogative words. When they are used in a question, they have an accent. When used to answer a question or make a statement, they don't. Compare the following:

– ¿Dónde estás?
– Estoy donde quiero estar.
   – Where are you?
– I'm where I want to be.
  
– ¿Cuándo vas a hacerlo?
– Cuando tenga tiempo.
– When are you going to do it?
– When I have time.

Spanish interrogatives

como   how cómo   how?
cual   which cuál   which?
cuando   when cuándo   when?
cuanto   how much/many cuánto   how much/many?
donde   where dónde   where?
que   what qué   what?
quien   who quién   who?

Notes

* The acute accent is rarely called acento agudo in Spanish; it’s more commonly known as tilde,** acento ortográfico, or simply acento.

** Not to be confused with the tilde over the letter n (ñ), which is something else entirely.

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