Tag Archives: accent marks

When linguistic terms collide

After publishing my recent post about Spanish commands and accent marks, which featured a short PowerPoint on this topic, I posted the same PowerPoint on the /r/Spanish subreddit and also on a few Facebook groups for Spanish teachers. I got unexpected pushback in those media about Anglicisms in the PowerPoint: Spanish words that I used with an English meaning. Specifically, I used the word estrés to refer to phonological (spoken) stress, i.e. a word’s most prominent syllable, and the word acento to refer to the written accent mark. Both these uses reflect English usage rather than standard Spanish.

Strictly speaking:

  • In Spanish estrés refers to physical or psychological stress. The correct translation of phonological stress (in the English sense) is acento, as in El acento recae en la penúltima sílaba ‘Stress falls on the next-to-last syllable.’ One can also refer to the sílaba tónica (the ‘stressed syllable’), as in La sílaba tónica es la penúltima ‘The stressed syllable is the next-to-last one.’
  • The normal Spanish term for the written accent mark is tilde, which in English refers specifically to the ~ that turns an n into an ñ.

This table summarizes the above:

MeaningStandard Spanish termAnglicized term
phonological stressacento
sílaba tónica
estrés
written accent marktildeacento

I used the Anglicized terms because the related topics of phonological stress and written accent marks are already very challenging on their own. First, the rules that govern phonological stress in Spanish, and which underlie the language’s use of written accent marks, are simple to a linguist but not to a layman. For instance, although the primary use of accent marks is to indicate exceptions to the basic stress rules of Spanish, such as caFÉ or teLÉfono, where one would expect penultimate stress (as in HAbla) since the words in a vowel, this pattern fails if a word ends in an -n or -s, as in HAblan or HAblas. It also doesn’t explain the written accent in words like ¿Qué? ‘What?’ and más ‘more.’ Second, even if students understand these rules, they are not used to paying attention to phonological stress: they are generally unaware, for instance, that English features word pairs such as proJECT (verb) and PROject (noun). So mastering this topic requires picking up an ‘ear’ for an aspect of language that one has blissfully ignored for years or even decades.

I should add that native speakers of Spanish also have difficulty with accent marks, just as native speakers of English have difficulty with apostrophes.

Fordham’s curriculum doesn’t allow time to teach a full lesson on accent marks, so instead I present the topic in short bursts, as needed. For example, my second-semester students recently learned command forms such ¡Duerme! ‘Sleep!’, ¡Duérmete! ‘Fall asleep!’, ¡Sé! ‘Be!’ and ¡Ve! ‘Go!’ This topic inevitably raises the question of which commands have accent marks and which don’t — and why. The PowerPoint in my earlier post answers this question accurately and quickly. It does so in part because it uses the anglicized terms estrés and acento instead of the proper Spanish counterparts. Having to explain the Spanish meanings of acento and tilde would gum up the works. So in this case I believe that the ends justify the means. I suspect that many Spanish teachers do the same.

Two other factors besides pragmatics justify my use of the Anglicized terms. The first is that both wordreference.com and linguee.es, both of which are reputable resources, give ‘accent mark’ (or ‘stress mark’) as one meaning of the word acento (although estrés never means phonological stress). The second is that Spanish has a long history of adding Anglicized meanings to existing vocabulary. Some examples are estrella meaning ‘celebrity’ (like English star), modelo meaning ‘fashion model,’ and blanco meaning ‘blank space to fill in.’ While purists may frown on such usages, I like to point out that Simón Bolívar, the great South American revolutionary hero, used papel ‘paper’ in the English sense of ‘newspaper’, and americano ‘American’ to mean someone from the United States, rather than the American continents more generally—a usage that is anathema to many contemporary Hispanics.

If Bolívar could get away with papel and americano, surely the gods of Spanish will forgive my use of estrés and acento in the service of pedagogy?

How to type accent marks (etc.) in Spanish

This topic has nothing to do with linguistics, but “How do I type accent marks?” is such a frequent question that I figured it was worth a blog post. Also, I just revisited this topic when preparing a handout for my students.

For both Windows and Mac users I recommend a so-called “dead key” approach in which you press one key to set up an accent mark and a second key to actually type it. There are other techniques available for both platforms, but dead keys are the fastest.

On a Windows computer you first have to activate the “U.S. International keyboard” that is part of the Windows operating system, though most users are unaware of it. You only have to do this once. On a Windows 10 computer:

  1. Type “language” in the search bar at the bottom left of the screen.
  2. Click on “language settings” which should be the top item returned.
  3. Under “Preferred languages” click “English (United States).” Don’t be tempted to change the language to Spanish!
  4. You should now see “Options.” Click on this.
  5. On the Language options screen that comes up, click “Add a keyboard,” then scroll and select “United States-International.”

You will now be able to toggle between “ENG” and “ENG INTL” on the taskbar, just to the left of the time and date. (On an older computer the steps to activate the US International keyboard are slightly different, and you will toggle by clicking on a keyboard icon.) When in “ENG INTL” mode,

To typeDo this
an accented vowel like é or óPress the apostrophe key (‘), then the desired vowel
ü as in pingüino or guëroUse the shift key to type a double quote (“), then u
¿Press the right-alt key (might be labeled “AlgGr”), then the slash (/), which shares a key with ?
¡Press the right-alt key (might be labeled “AlgGr”), then 1, which shares a key with !
ñUse the shift key to type a tilde ~ (to the left of the number 1), then type n
apostrophe or double quoteType the punctuation mark, then hit the space bar to “release” it

On a Mac, according to my Internet research rather than personal experience, to type:

  • an accented vowel: press Option-e, then the vowel
  • ñ: press option-n, then n
  • ¿: press option-? (including shift key)
  • ¡: press option-1
  • ü: press option-u, then u

Bad Spanish — NY hospitals edition

I was happy to receive an email today from my primary care physician’s practice — in English and Spanish! — letting me know that they expect to be administering COVID-19 vaccines. I’m too young and healthy to qualify right now, and the vaccines are in short supply. Nevertheless it was good to hear that when circumstances change I should be able to get my shots locally.

My satisfaction in receiving the email was diminished, though, by the poor quality of its Spanish. I’ve copied the relevant parts below, with errors highlighted and corrected afterward. Just to give you an idea of the scale of these problems, the email substituted ano ‘anus’ for año ‘year.’ This is a notorious elementary mistake!

¿año o ano?

Estimado/a Paciente,

En ColumbiaDoctors, Weill Cornell Medicine, y NewYork-Presbyterian, estamos vacunando pacientes del COVID-19, que tienen 65 anos o mas y que viven or trabajan en el estado de Nueva York.  El estado de Nueva York recientemente a mandado que la vacuna del COVID-19 este disponible para personas elegible de esta edad.

El estado de Nueva York también anunció que los pacientes inmunosuprimidos son elegibles, pero estamos esperando obtener mas informacion sobre quién califica en este grupo. 

Aquellos pacientes que son elegibles, pueden programar una cita para vacunas a través del Connect portal de paciente a medida de que las citas estén disponibles. No llame al hospital ni a la clinica de su médico para programar una cita para la vacuna.


  • Paciente: should be paciente (lower-case)
  • The “Oxford comma” (between Medicine and y) is not used in Spanish.
  • pacientes: missing personal a beforehand (vacunando a pacientes)
  • The comma after COVID-19 is incorrect in either English or Spanish because it introduces a restrictive clause.
  • anos: should be años (see illustration), i.e. ‘years,’ not ‘anuses.’
  • mas: should be más (with accent). This error occurs twice. Mas (without an accent) means ‘but,’ not ‘more.’
  • or: should be o
  • a mandado: should be ha mandado
  • este: should be esté (with accent). Este (without an accent) means ‘this,’ not ‘be.’
  • eligible: should be plural (eligibles), to agree with personas
  • informacion: missing accent mark (información)
  • califica: not 100% sure, but I expect this should be califique (subjunctive) since they don’t yet know who qualifies
  • another useless comma between eligibles and pueden
  • Connect portal de paciente: wrong word order. Should be portal de paciente Connect, although I can’t cite a rule here (gut reaction).
  • clinica: should be clínica (with accent)

It boggles my mind that in twenty-first century New York these three large medical groups (ColumbiaDoctors, Weill Cornell Medicine, and NewYork-Presbyterian) can’t find an educated Spanish speaker to proofread their emails. The many accent mark errors, and the confusion of ha and a, suggest that they relied instead on a “heritage” speaker who lacked formal training in written Spanish.

I would be happy to volunteer my own time if contacted.

Bad Spanish: Tampa Bay edition

Today’s Tampa Bay Times has an article about Joe Biden’s upcoming town hall with undecided voters at the Pérez Art Museum. I was surprised to see that the newspaper misspelled the museum’s name as Peréz.

Should be Pérez, not Peréz. Duh.

I was surprised for two reasons. First, the museum is a major Tampa cultural institution, and the city’s hometown newspaper should be able to spell its name properly. For crying out loud, they could have checked Wikipedia if they weren’t sure. You can see the name of the museum in both the text and the illustration of the Wikipedia entry, accent mark neatly in place.

Second, the misplaced accent mark is such an obvious Spanish mistake that someone at the the Tampa Bay Times should have caught it. As any Spanish teacher will tell you, Spanish words that end in a consonant, including z, are normally stressed on the last syllable. The accent mark on Pérez indicates an exception to this rule: the name is pronounced PErez, not peREZ. In other words, NO Spanish word that ends with z will ever have an accent mark on its final syllable.

Please be more careful, TBT.

Stressing about “porque”

I thought there was nothing left for me to learn about Spanish stress, a topic that encompasses both pronunciation — which syllable in a word is given the greatest acoustic prominence — and writing — the use of accent marks to indicate irregular stress (inter alia). After all, I wrote my dissertation about how children learn the relevant pronunciation rules, then spun off two papers on this topic (here and here). More recently I devoted one question in my book to spoken stress, and one to accent marks. And accent marks are always a favorite topic for me to teach, both to students and to native speakers, who are uniformly delighted to learn how systematic this part of Spanish orthography is. My top recommendation for an online summary, with some nifty exercises, is here.

So it was surprising when a conversation with a student made me question, in a small way, my understanding of this topic. I had been going over the stress rules with this student, including the basic rule that words that end in a vowel are stressed on the next-to-last syllable. (Think HEcho, partiCIpa, todopodeROso, and desafortunadaMENte.) She then asked if porque ‘because’ was an exception to this rule.

This question threw me for a loop. Porque is related both to the interrogative ¿por qué? ‘why?’ and the noun porqué, which also means ‘why’, as in el porqué de una decisión ‘the why of a decision’. These two words/phrases both stress the qué, and the student assumed that porque did as well. When I said porque out loud, at first I thought I stressed the que. But the more I repeated the word, the less certain I became of my own stress placement — a kind of Heisenberg effect.

Fortunately, we live in a time that is rich in language resources. I was able to pull up wordreference’s listing for porque, which includes recordings of Mexican, Spanish, and Argentinian pronunciations. These pronunciations are divided: the Mexican pronunciation stresses the que, but the other two clearly stress the por. I then checked on Forvo, a crowd-sourced pronunciation dictionary. Again, the Mexican pronunciations stress the que, and the others — from Spain, the DR, and Argentina — stress the por. However, some examples provided of porque in context — for example, this one, recorded by a speaker from Spain — are more Mexican-style.

So the correct answer to my student’s question seems to be that in general, porque follows the rules of Spanish stress, but not in Mexico, and not always in Spain, either.

Say it isn’t so (again), (Trader) Joe’s

I feel really bad picking on Trader Joe’s for a third time. It’s my favorite grocery store! Maybe other stores are just as bad, but I see more mistakes at TJ’s because I go there so often.

Be that as it may…

This morning’s free coffee sample at my local TJ’s was particularly excellent. It was Café Pajaro, an organic, full-bodied, 100% Arabica variety from Guatemala. Amazon reviews describe it as “best coffee ever”, “best TJ brand on the market today”, and “dark and smooth”. The design of the coffee canister respects the variety’s Guatemalan heritage by picturing a quetzal, the indigenous bird whose name comes from Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) and has been extended to the country’s currency.

The Spanish on the label, on the other hand, disrespects this heritage because, although café receives its proper accent, an accent is missing from pájaro (meaning ‘bird’).

I’ve complained about TJ’s cavalier treatment of accent marks in the previous posts linked to above, but this incident is particularly galling*. If they can get it right in one word, why not in the other?

TJ’s has an online comment form if anyone wants to join me in complaining.

*In my previous “Bad Spanish” post I complained that TJ had omitted the accent in auténtica but not in French soirée. I’d have to call that incident “gaul-ing.” (Sorry.)

All about Spanish accents

¡Los acentos importan! — the subject is Panamanian politician Ricardo Martinelli. The accent on él is from rule 3 below, and the accent on cambió is from rule 2.

People are always asking me about Spanish accent marks. I don’t think this is because accents are intrinsically difficult, but rather that most explanations fail to put together some related issues. It’s a not-seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees situation.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, what unites all uses of Spanish accent marks is that they serve to highlight unusual stress: stress on an unusual vowel, syllable, or word.

  1. A written accent can break the normal rules for which vowel to stress within in a vowel sequence. Spanish normally stresses the second of two vowels, as in fuE·go “fire” or diA·blo “devil” (this is actually a slight simplification). A written accent signals a deviation from this pattern, as in con·ti·nÚ·e “continue” or co·mÍ·a·mos “we were eating”. Notice that changing the stress pattern also creates an additional syllable. What power!
  2. A written accent can break the normal rules for which syllable to stress within a word. Spanish normally stresses the last syllable of a word that ends in a consonant, and the next-to-last syllable of a word that ends in a vowel. Think mu.jEr vs. hOm.bre. With a written accent mark you can break this pattern: lÁ.piz ends in a consonant, and hin.dÚ and te.lÉ.fe.no both end in a vowel. A final s or n doesn’t “count” because it’s usually a grammatical marker: there’s no stress difference between hA.blahA.blas, and hA.blan, or between cu.ca.rA.cha and cu.ca.rA.chas.
  3. A written accent marks the member of an otherwise identical word pair that usually carries more stress within a sentence, and can even stand alone. This is most obvious for question words. Compare the stress on accented versus unaccented quien and como in ¿Quién se llama Juan? and ¿Cómo nada un pez? versus Tu amigo, quien se llama Juan, nada como un pez. The accented varieties can stand alone: ¿Quién? ¿Cómo?

Once you know these fundamental rules, mysteries vanish. Why does más have an accent? To distinguish it from the obscure word mas, which means “but”; note that the accented version can stand on its own (¡Más!). Why do some words gain an accent in the plural, some lose an accent, and some keep an accent? These cases all have to do with final n or s:

  • Words that gain an accent change from regular to irregular in the plural. Singular jO·ven has regular stress (next-to-last syllable, word ends in n) but plural jÓ·ve·nes is irregular (third-to-last syllable).
  • Words that lose an accent change from irregular to regular in the plural. Singular ja·mÓn has irregular stress (final syllable, word ends in n) but plural ja·mO·nes is regular (next-to-last syllable, word ends in s).
  • Words that keep an accent have irregular stress in both the singular and the plural. For ca·fÉ and ca·fÉs, regular stress would be on the a; for fÁ·cil and fÁ·ci·lesregular stress would be on the i.

Even native speakers make accent mark mistakes, so please — don’t stress! 😉