How Does Spanish Use Upside-Down Question and Exclamation Marks?

Inverted punctuation not always placed at beginning of sentence

Sign that says "¡A jugar! Levántate y juega. Una hora al día.""
Sign in Austin, Texas. Translation: Let's play! Get up and play. One hour a day.

Alamosbasement / Creative Common CC BY 2.0

The upside-down or inverted question marks and exclamation points of Spanish are unique to the languages of Spain. But they make a lot of sense: When you're reading in Spanish, you can tell long before the end of a sentence whether you're dealing with a question, something that isn't always obvious when a sentence doesn't start with a question word such as qué (what) or quién (who). 

Where To Place Upside-Down Question Marks

The important thing to remember is that the inverted question mark (or exclamation) goes at the beginning part of the question (or exclamation), not at the beginning of the sentence if the two are different. See these examples:

  • Pablo, ¿adónde vas? (Pablo, where are you going?)
  • Quiero saber, ¿cuándo es tu cumpleaños? (I want to know, when is your birthday?)
  • Estoy cansado, ¿y tú? (I'm tired, are you?)
  • Eso, ¿es verdad? (That, is it true?)
  • Sin embargo, ¡tengo frío! (Nevertheless, I'm cold!)
  • Pues, ¡llegó la hora! (Well, it's about time!)

Note that the question or exclamation part does not begin with a capitalized letter unless it's a word that would normally be capitalized, such as a person's name. Note also that if words not part of the question come after the question, then the closing question mark still comes at the end:

  • ¿Adónde vas, Pablo? (Where are you going, Pablo?)
  • Pablo, ¿adónde vas, mi amigo? (Pablo, where are you going, my friend?)
  • ¡Eres la mejor, Angelina! (You're the best, Angelina!)

Although it is common to treat the inverted punctuation as optional in informal contexts, such as on social media, it is mandatory in standard written Spanish.

Question and Exclamation Marks Can Be Combined

If a sentence is a question and an exclamation at the same time, something for which the English language has no good written equivalent, it is possible to combine the question and exclamation marks. One way is to place the inverted question mark at the beginning of the sentence and the standard exclamation mark at the end or vice versa. More common, and the preference of the Royal Spanish Academy, is to place the punctuation marks next to each other as in the third and fourth examples below:

  • ¿Cómo lo hace! (How does she do it? To translate the Spanish well, this might be said in an incredulous tone. An alternate translation might be "I don't see how she does it!")
  • ¡Me quieres? (You love me? The punctuation may indicate a lack of belief in what is being responded to.)
  • ¡¿Qué veste?! (What are you seeing? The tone of voice may suggest "What in the world do you see?")
  • ¿¡Qué estás diciendo!? (What are you saying? The tone of voice may indicate disbelief.)

To indicate an extremely strong exclamation, it is acceptable, unlike in standard English, to use two or three exclamation points but not more:

  • ¡¡¡Idiota!!! (Idiot!)
  • Es imposible. ¡¡¡No lo creo.!!! (It's impossible. I can't believe it!)

Word Order in Questions

Most questions begin with an interrogative pronoun such as qué or an interrogative adverb such as cómo. In nearly all such cases, the opening question word is followed by the verb and then the subject, which will be a noun or pronoun. Of course, it is common to omit the subject if it isn't needed for clarity.

  • ¿Dónde jugarían los niños? (Where would the children play? Dónde is the interrogative adverb, jugarían is the verb, and the subject is niños.)
  • ¿Qué significa tu nombre? (What does your name mean?)
  • ¿Cómo comen los insectos? (How do insects eat?)

If the verb has an direct object and the subject is not stated, the object typically comes before the verb if it would in the equivalent English sentence:

  • ¿Cuántos insectos comió la araña? (How many insects did the spider eat? Insectos is the direct object of comió.)
  • ¿Qué tipo de celular prefieres? (Which type of cellphone do you prefer? Tipo de celular is the direct object of prefieres.)
  • ¿Dónde venden ropa guatemalteca? (Where do they sell Guatemalan clothing. Ropa guatemalteca is the direct object of venden.)

If the question has a stated subject and an object, it is common to use a verb-object-subject word order if the object is shorter than the subject and a verb-subject-object order if the subject is shorter. If they're of similar length, either order is acceptable.

  • ¿Dónde venden ropa los mejores diseñadores de moda? (Do the best fashion designers sell clothing? The subject, los mejores diseñadores de moda, is much longer than the object, ropa.)
  • ¿Dónde compran los estudiantes los libros de química farmacéutica? (Where do the students buy the pharmaceutical chemistry books? The subject, los estudiantes, is shorter than the object, los libros de química farmacéutica.)

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish uses inverted question and exclamation marks to begin and end questions and exclamations, respectively.
  • If a sentence has an introductory phrase or word that is not part of the question or exclamation, the opening mark comes at the beginning of the question or exclamation.
  • Question and exclamation marks can be combined for exclamatory questions or exclamations that take the form of a question.
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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "How Does Spanish Use Upside-Down Question and Exclamation Marks?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 28). How Does Spanish Use Upside-Down Question and Exclamation Marks? Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "How Does Spanish Use Upside-Down Question and Exclamation Marks?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).