Spanish Word Stress: A Quick Guide

May 14, 2020
Word Stress in Spanish (acentuación) is one of the most confusing topics regarding Spanish pronunciation. It becomes particularly troubling, of course, when we learn a word by reading it and have
never heard it before. Fortunately, there is a set of facts that can help us know where the word stress has to be for any given word, by only reading it. And even better: these rules have no exceptions!
Syllables in Spanish
The process of knowing where the stress in a Spanish word is involves two simple steps. First, we have to know what the syllables of the word are, and then we have to analyze its ending and the presence of an accent mark.
This is so because, unlike other languages, in Spanish only one syllable carries the phonetic stress. Hence, it is enough to find which syllable is stressed, and we will know how to pronounce the word.
To know what the syllables of a word are, we can simply take into consideration these principles:
a. Spanish syllables are built around vowels. So individual vowels can be syllables:
- Acercar A-cer-car
- Anochecer A-no-che-cer
b. All syllables must have at least one vowel
c. A syllable starts with a consonant, and continue until another consonant appear. In the case
the next consonant is part of a group of them, one will be part of the first syllable, and the
next consonants will be part of the second syllable.
- Mesa Me-sa
- Ruta Ru-ta
- Camino Ca-mi-nar
- Androide An-droi-de
d. We don’t separate these vowels when together (ai, au, ei, eu, io, ou, ia, ua, ie, ue, oi, uo, ui, iu, ay, ey, oy). The consonant pairs “rr” and “ch” cannot be separated either.
- Comió Co-mió
- Corrió Co-rrió
- Caimán Cai-mán
The Spanish Accent Mark (Tilde)
Some words in Spanish will carry an accent mark, indicating which syllable is stressed. This fact creates our first important rule regarding word stress:
1. A vowel that has an accent mark on it always carries the word stress.
- Camión Ca-mión
- Canción Can-ción
- Ratón Rat-ón
- Esdrújula Es-drú-jula
The “N-S-VOWEL” rules
However, the tricky part is that the vast majority of words in Spanish do not explicitly carry a stress mark. How can we know, then, where the word stress is?
To figure it out for any new word you read, and using the knowledge about syllables we have previously acquired, it is possible to point out two more general rules:
2. The last syllable is stressed if the word ends with a letter other than N, S or a vowel -and no accent mark is written-
- Escuchar Escu-char
- Comer Co-mer
- Naval Na-val
3. The second to last syllable is stressed if the word ends with N, S or a vowel -and no accent mark is written-
- Platos Pla-tos
- Piscina Pis-ci-na
- Argentina Argen-ti-na
Since all words that do not carry the stress in the last or second to last syllable must explicitly have an accent mark, there are no additional rules to take into consideration, besides words ending with more than one consonant, like:
- Ro-bots
- Tríceps
As a result, every single word in Spanish can be stressed by following one of these three simple rules. For words that have a stress mark on them, we follow the first rule. And for words without a stress mark on them, we check their last letter, and assign the stress to the right syllable following the second or third rule, depending on the case.
In colaboration with Gabriel Vasquez
Writer and Spanish professor at Languag3Online