3 Key Differences Between English and Spanish Punctuation

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Spanish and English are similar enough in their punctuation that a beginner might look at something in Spanish and not notice anything unusual except for a few upside-down question marks or exclamation points. Look more closely, however, and you'll find other key differences that you should learn as soon as you're ready to start learning how to write Spanish.

Usually, as with other Indo-European languages, the punctuation conventions of English and Spanish are very similar. In both languages, for example, periods can be used to mark abbreviations or to end sentences, and parentheses are used for inserting nonvital remarks or words. However, the differences explained below are common and apply to both formal and information variations of the written languages.

Questions and Exclamations

As already mentioned, the most common difference is the use of inverted question marks and exclamation points, a feature that is almost unique to Spanish. (Galician, a minority language of Spain and Portugal, also uses them.) The inverted punctuation is used at the beginning of questions and exclamations. They should be used within a sentence if only part of the sentence contains the question or exclamation.

  • ¡Qué sorpresa! (What a surprise!)
  • ¿Quieres ir? (Do you want to go?)
  • Vas al supermercado, ¿no? (You're going to the supermarket, aren't you?)
  • No va ¡maldito sea! (He's not going, darn it!)

Dialogue Dashes

Another difference you're likely to see often is the use of a dash—such as the ones separating this clause from the rest of the sentence—to indicate the beginning of dialogue. The dash is also used to end dialogue within a paragraph or to indicate a change in speaker, although none is needed at the end of dialogue if the end comes at the end of a paragraph. In other words, the dash can substitute for quotation marks under some circumstances.

Here are examples of the dash in action. The paragraph mark in the translations is used to show where a new paragraph would begin in traditionally punctuated English, which uses separate paragraphs to indicate a change in speaker.

  • —¿Vas al supermercado?— le preguntó. —No sé. ("Are you going to the store?" he asked her. ¶ "I don't know.")
  • —¿Crees que va a llover? —Espero que sí. —Yo también. ("Do you think it is going to rain?" ¶ "I hope so." ¶ "So do I.")

When dashes are used, it isn't necessary to start a new paragraph with a change in speaker. These dashes are used by many writers instead of quotation marks, although the use of quotation marks is common. When standard quotation marks are used, the are used much as in English, except that, unlike in American English, commas or periods at the end of a quote are placed outside the quotation marks reather than inside.

  • "Voy al supermarcodo", le dijo. ("I'm going to the store," he told her.)
  • Ana me dijo: "La bruja está muerta". (Ana told me: "The witch is dead.")

Less common still is the use of angular quotation marks, which find more use in Spain than Latin America. Angular quotation marks are used much the same as regular quotation marks, and they are often used when it is necessary to place a quotation mark within other quotation marks:

  • Pablo me dijo: «Isabel me declaró, "Somos los mejores", pero no lo creo». (Pablo told me: "Isabel declared to me, 'We are the best,' but I don't believe it.")

Punctuation Within Numbers

A third difference you'll see in writing from Spanish-speaking countries is that comma and period usage in numbers is reversed from what it is in American English; in other words, Spanish uses a decimal comma. For example, 12,345.67 in English becomes 12.345,67 in Spanish, and $89.10, whether used to refer to dollars or the monetary units of some other countries, becomes $89,10. Publications in Mexico and Puerto Rico, however, generally use the same number style as is used in the United States.

Some publications also use an apostrophe to mark off the millions in numbers, such as with 12'345.678,90 for 12,234,678.90 in American English. This approach is rejected however, by some grammarians and recommended against by Fundéu, a prominent language watchdog organization.

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish uses both inverted and standard question and exclamation parks to mark off the beginning and end of questions and exclamations.
  • Some Spanish writers and publications use long dashes and angular quotation marks in addition to standard quotation marks.
  • In most Spanish-speaking areas, commas and periods are used within numbers in the opposite way that they are in American English.