Introduction to 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. However, there are a few differences, some of them subtle, in the way the two languages are punctuated.

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. It isn't necessary to start a new paragraph with a change in speaker as is customary in English. These dashes are used by many writers instead of quotation marks, although the use of quotation marks isn't uncommon. Less common still is the use of angular quotation marks, which find more use in Spain than Latin America.

  • —¿Vas al supermercado?— le preguntó. —No sé. ("Are you going to the store?" he asked her. ¶"I don't know.")

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 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 becomes $89,10. Publications in Mexico and Puerto Rico, however, generally use the same number style as is used in the United States.

Other less common or less significant differences in punctuation between Spanish and English are detailed in a more advanced lesson on punctuation.