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 means "only" (adverb). Be aware that the Real Academia Española changed that rule in 2010 so that no accent is needed anymore for the word solo no matter what the function of the word.

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

Solo quiero un café.
I only want a coffee.


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.


  • 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.
Let me take a look at that...