Understanding the Usage of Spanish Punctuation

door-comma.jpeg
Una puerta con una coma. (A door with a comma.). David Bleasdale/Creative Commons license.

Spanish punctuation is so much like English's that some textbooks and reference books don't even discuss it. But there are a few significant differences.

The following chart shows the Spanish punctuation marks and their names. Ones whose uses are significantly different than those of English are explained below.

Punctuation Used in Spanish

  • . — punto, punto final — period
  • , — comacomma
  • : — dos puntos — colon
  • ; — punto y comasemicolon
  • — — raya — dash
  • - — guiónhyphen
  • « » —comillasquotation marks
  • " — comillas — quotation marks
  • ' — comillas simples — single quotation marks
  • ¿ ? — principio y fin de interrogaciónquestion marks
  • ¡ ! — principio y fin de exclamación o admiraciónexclamation points
  • ( ) — paréntesis — parenthesis
  • [ ] — corchetes, parénteses cuadrados — brackets
  • { } — corchetes — braces, curly brackets
  • * — asterisco — asterisk
  • ... — puntos suspensivos — ellipsis

Question Marks

In Spanish, question marks are used at the beginning and the end of a question. If a sentence contains more than a question, the question marks frame the question when the question part comes at the end of the sentence.

  • Si no te gusta la comida, ¿por qué la comes? (If you don't like the food, why are you eating it? Only the last four words form the question, and thus the inverted question mark comes near the middle of the sentence.)
  • ¿Por qué la comes si no te gusta la comida? (Why are you eating the food if you don't like it? Since the question part of the sentence comes at the beginning, the entire sentence is surrounded by question marks.)
  • Katarina, ¿qué haces hoy? (Katarina, what are you doing today?)

Exclamation Point

Exclamation points are used in the same way as question marks are except to indicate exclamations instead of questions. Exclamation marks are also sometimes used for direct commands. If a sentence contains a question and an exclamation, it is OK to use one of the marks at the beginning of the sentence and the other at the end.

  • Vi la película la noche pasada. ¡Qué susto! I saw the movie last night. What a fright!
  • ¡Qué lástima, estás bien? What a pity, are you all right?

It is acceptable in Spanish to use up to three consecutive exclamation points to show emphasis.

  • ¡¡¡No lo creo!!! (I don't believe it!)

Period

In regular text, the period is used essentially the same as in English, coming at the end of sentences and most abbreviations. However, in Spanish numerals, a comma is often used instead of a period and vice versa. In U.S. and Mexican Spanish, however, the same pattern as English is often followed.

  • Ganó $16.416,87 el año pasado. (She earned $16,416.87 last year. This punctuation would be used in Spain and most of Latin America.)
  • Ganó $16,416.87 el año pasado. (She earned $16,416.87 last year. This punctuation would be used primarily in Mexico, the U.S., and Puerto Rico.)

Comma

The comma usually is used the same as in English, being used to indicate a break in thought or to set off clauses or words. One difference is that in lists, there is no comma between the next-to-last item and the y, whereas in English some writers use a comma before the "and." (This use in English is sometimes called the serial comma or the Oxford comma.)

  • Compré una camisa, dos zapatos y tres libros. (I bought a shirt, two shoes, and three books.)
  • Vine, vi y vencí. (I came, I saw, I conquered.)

Dash

The dash is used most frequently in Spanish to indicate a change in speakers during a dialogue, thus replacing quotation marks. (In English, it is customary to separate each speaker's remarks into a separate paragraph, but that typically isn't done in Spanish.

  • — ¿Cómo estás? — Muy bien ¿y tú? — Muy bien también. "How are you?" ¶"I'm fine. And you?" ¶"I'm fine too."

Dashes can also be used to set off material from the rest of the text, much as they are in English.

  • Si quieres una taza de café — es muy cara — puedes comprarla aquí. (If you want a cup of coffee — it's very expensive — you can buy it here.)

Angled Quotation Marks

The angled quotation marks and the English-style quotation marks are equivalent. The choice is primarily a matter of regional custom or the capabilities of the typesetting system. The angled quotation marks are more common in Spain than in Latin America, perhaps because they are used in some other Romance languages such as French.

The main difference between the English and Spanish uses of quotation marks is that sentence punctuation in Spanish goes outside the quote marks, while in American English the punctuation is on the inside.

  • Quiero leer "Romeo y Julieta". (I want to read "Romeo and Juliet.")
  • Quiero leer «Romeo y Julieta». (I want to read "Romeo and Juliet.")