The Quick and Easy Guide to Spanish Spelling and Punctuation

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The Spanish Alphabet

The Spanish alphabet has the following letters:

  • A a
  • B be
  • C ce
  • Ch che
  • D de
  • E e
  • F efe
  • G ge
  • H hache
  • I i
  • J jota
  • K ka
  • L ele
  • LL elle
  • M eme
  • N ene
  • Ñ eñe
  • O o
  • P pe
  • Q cu
  • R ere
  • RR erre
  • S ese
  • T te
  • U u
  • V uve
  • W uve doble / doble u
  • X equis
  • Y ye, i griega
  • Z zeta

Letters of the Spanish alphabet are all feminine: la a, una ce.

Ch and ll were counted as separate letters of the alphabet until the Association of Academies of Spanish decided to introduce normal alphabetical order in April 1994. As a result alphabetical order in dictionaries and directories printed before that date will differ from publication to publication e.g. chato came after cubrir, llama after Iuz.

Writing Accents In Spanish

There are three written accents in Spanish:

  1. the acute accent
  2. the dieresis
  3. the tilde

The dieresis occurs only in the combinations güe and güi, where it shows that the u is not silent as in nicaragüense Nicaraguan,el pingüino the penguin.

The tilde appears only over ñ, and forms an entirely different letter.

The acute accent is used for three purposes:

(a) Occasionally to distinguish two words that are spelt the same, e.g. sólo only and solo alone.

(b) On question words: ¿cuándo vienes? w hen are you coming?, no sabe qué hacer he doesn’t know what to do.

(c) To show where the stress falls in unpredictably stressed words

This latter function is very important, since the position of stress in a Spanish word is crucial for the meaning: compare hablo I speak and habló he spoke.

An accent must be written on the stressed vowel:

(1) Whenever the stress falls more than two full vowels from the end:

  • rápido fast
  • las imágenes images
  • dígamelo say it to me
  • fácilmente easily
  • cámbiate change your clothes(third full vowel from end)

(2) Whenever the word ends in a vowel or n or s and the stress falls on the final vowel:

  • habló he spoke
  • iraní Iranian
  • cambié I changed
  • la nación the nation
  • francés French

Compare the following words which are stressed on the last full vowel but one and therefore do not require an accent:

  • hablo I speak
  • cambio I change
  • dicen they say
  • la imagen the image
  • las naciones the nations
  • las series the series (plural).

(3) When the word ends in a consonant other than n or s and it is not stressed on the last vowel:

  • el récord the record (in sport, etc.)
  • el revólver the revolver
  • fácil easy

Compare the following words which are stressed on the last vowel and therefore do not require an accent:

  • la libertad freedom
  • natural natural
  • el complot conspiracy/plot.

Words of one syllable (i.e. having only one fully pronounced vowel) are not written with an accent:

  • fui [fwi] I was
  • fue [fwe] he was
  • vio [byo] he saw
  • dio [dyo] he gave
  • la fe faith

The only exceptions are accents written to distinguish one word from another: see table below.

Words like fió he entrusted,crié I bred/raised have two syllables (i.e. the i is pronounced separately).

Spanish words that change meaning with an accent

Spanish English Spanish English
aun even aún still/yet
de of Present subjunctive of dar to give
el the él he
este this éste this one
ese/aquel that ése/áquel that one
mas but (poetic) más more
mi my me (after prepositions)
se pronoun I know
si if yes; himself/herself/yourselves etc.
solo alone sólo only
te you tea
tu your you

Diphthongs And Triphthongs: Spelling And Accent Rules

Diphthongs consist of a y or w sound preceded or followed by a vowel. They are pronounced as follows:

  • ai, ay: aisle - hay there is / there are
  • au: cow, but with rounded lips - causa cause
  • ei, ey: day - ley law
  • eu: like e in egg followed by w of well - Europa Europe
  • ie, ye: yes - bien well
  • ia, ya: y of yes + Spanish a - ya already
  • iu: y of yes + Spanish u - la viuda widow
  • oi, oy: boy - hoy today
  • ua: w of want (with rounded lips) + Spanish a - agua water
  • ue: went with rounded lips - bueno good
  • uy: Spanish u + y of.yes - muy very

The sound y is always written y at the end of words:

  • rey king
  • doy I give

The sound y is written either y or hi at the beginning of words:

  • el yate yacht
  • la hlerba or la yerba grass

The sound w is always written hu at the beginning of a word or when it comes between vowels:

  • la huerta [lawérta] orchard
  • ahuecar [awekár] to hollow out

When the combinations of vowel plus i or u represent two separate vowels and not a diphthong, the i or u is written with an accent (even if h intervenes):

  • dúo duo
  • el búho the owl
  • hacías you were doing
  • prohíben they prohibit
  • se reúnen they hold a meeting

Triphthongs consist of one of the above Diphthongs preceded or followed by a y sound or a w sound:

actuáis [aktwáys] you act

buey [bwey] ox

Diphthongs and Triphthongs count as one full vowel for the purpose of finding the stress accent:

Regular stress

  • hacia towards
  • dio he gave
  • aire air
  • sois you(vosotros) are

Irregular

  • hacía he made
  • me fío I trust
  • aísla he isolates
  • prohíbe he prohibits

Miscellaneous Spelling Rules

The main traps set by the Spanish spelling system are:

b and v are pronounced the same, so words like vello down (i.e. very fine hair) and bello beautiful sound the same.

The sound s (as in English hiss) can be spelt three different ways in Latin America:

  • feroz ferocious[ferós]
  • as ace [as]
  • haz do [as]
  • hace does[áse]
  • cinco five[sínko]

The z and c in the above words are pronounced like th of think in central and northern Spain.

There is no certain way of predicting the spelling of the sound [x] (like the ch in the Scottish loch) . It is usually written j before a, o, u and g before e and i. But there are quite a few words in which the combination je occurs, e.g. el viaje journey, el equipaje baggage,el paisaje countryside,Jesús Jesus, condujeron they drove, etc.

h is a silent letter, so there is no difference in sound, for example, between hecho done and echo I pour out.

que and qui: the u is silent and the q is pronounced [k].

A number of alternative spellings exist, the most important of which are:

  • words beginning with psic- (the equivalent of our psych-) may be written sic-: psicología or sicología psychology, because the p is silent.
  • the words septiembre September and séptimo seventh can be spelt without the p.
  • words beginning with ree- may be spelt re-, e.g. relegir or reelegir re-elect.

In all cases the longer forms are more usual (at least in Spain).

Spanish Punctuation Rules

There are variations in punctuation rules depending on the country and, to some extent, on the publisher. Only the major differences between Spanish and English practice are mentioned.

A comma is used to separate decimals (but not in Mexico, which uses the same system as English):

12,75 doce coma setenta y cinco 12.75

A period (British full stop) is used to separate thousands

1.000.000 un millón a million

Mexico uses the English system.

In some publications double inverted commas (las comillas) are used to enclose quoted words, in others chevrons are used (« »):

Tuvieron problemas por “el fuerte carácter de la suegra” or... «el fuerte carácter de la suegra» They had problems due to ‘their mother-in-law’s strong character’

Question marks and exclamation marks must be written upside-down at the beginning of questions and exclamations as well as the right way up at the end:

Oye, ¿sabes qué hora es? Listen, d’you know what time it is?

Pero, ¡qué tonto! But what a tool!

As can be seen, the start of the question or exclamation does not always coincide with the start of the sentence.

A raya or double-length dash is used to mark off dialogue in novels and stories:

—Tengo un hijo tuyo —me dijo después—. Allí está.

Y apuntó con el dedo a un muchacho largo con los ojos azorados.

—¡Quítate el sombrero, para que te vea tu padre!

‘I’ve got a son of yours’, he said to me afterwards.

"There he is.”

And he pointed to a tall boy with alarmed eyes.

“Take your hat off so your father can see you”

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