Using the Comma in Spanish

Rules Usually Similar to Those of English

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

Most of the time, the comma of Spanish is used much like the comma in English. However, there are some differences, particularly in numbers and in comments that are inserted within sentences.

Following are the most common uses for the comma, known as la coma, in Spanish.

Using Commas to Separate Items in a Series

Unlike in English, where the Oxford comma is optionally used before the final item in a series, a comma is not used before the final item of a series when it follows the conjunction e, o, ni, u or y.

  • El libro explicaba de una forma concisa, sencilla y profunda la crisis financiera. The book explained the financial crisis in a concise, simple and profound way. (In English, a comma could optionally be added after "simple.")
  • Mezcle bien con las papas, los huevos y las remolachas. (Mix well with the potatoes, eggs, and beets.)
  • ¿Quieres tres, dos o una? (Do you want three, two, or one?)

If an item in a series has a comma within it, you should use a semicolon.

Using Commas for Explanatory Phrases and Apposition

The rule on explanatory phrases is much the same as it is in English. If a phrase is used to explain what something is like, it is set off by commas. If it is used to define which something is being referred to, it is not. For example, in the sentence "El coche que estás en el garaje es rojo" (The car that is in the garage is red), commas are not needed because the explanatory phrase (que está en el garaje/that is in the garage) is telling the reader which car is being discussed.

But punctuated differently, the sentence "el coche, que está en el garaje, es rojo" (the car, which is in the garage, is red) uses the phrase not to tell the reader which car is being discussed, but to describe where it is.

An overlapping concept is that of apposition, in which a phrase or word (usually a noun) is immediately followed by another phrase or word that in the context means the same thing, is similarly punctuated much as in English.

  • El hombre, que tiene hambre, quiere verte. (The man, who is hungry, wants to see you. The phrase que tiene hambre is being used to describe the man, not to define which man is being talked about.)
  • El hombre en el cuarto quiere verte. (The man in the room wants to see you. No comma is needed because en el cuarto is being used to say which man is being talked about.)
  • Amo a mi hermano, Roberto. I love my brother, Roberto. (I have one brother, and he is named Roberto.)
  • Amo a mi hermano Roberto. I love my brother Roberto. (I have more than one brother, and I love Roberto.)
  • Conozco a Julio Iglesias, cantante famoso. (I know Julio Iglesias, the famous singer.)
  • Conozco al cantante famosos Julio Iglesias. (I know the famous singer Julio Iglesias. The speaker is assuming that the listener doesn't know who Iglesias is.)

Using Commas To Set Off Quotes

When quotation marks are used, the comma goes outside the quotation marks, unlike in American English.

  • "Los familiares no comprendieron la ley", aclaró el abogado. ("The family members did not understand the law," the lawyer clarified.)
  • "Muchos no saben distinguir las dos cosas", dijo Álvarez. (Many do not know how to distinguish the two things, Alvarez said.)

    Using Commas With Exclamations

    Commas can be used to set off exclamations that are inserted within a sentence. In English, the equivalent would normally be accomplished with long dashes. El nuevo presidente, ¡no lo creo!, es natural de Nueva York. The new president — I can't believe it! — is a native of New York.

    Using Commas Before Some Conjunctions

    A comma should precede conjunctions that mean "except." These words are excepto, salvo and menos:

    • Nada hay que temer, excepto el miedo. (There is nothing to fear except fear.)
    • Recibí felicitaciones de todos, salvo de mi jefe. (I was congratulated by everyone except for my boss.)
    • Fueron aceptados por todas las autoridades, excepto el vice presidente. (They were accepted by all the authorities, except the vice president.)

    Using Commas After Some Adverbs

    A comma should separate adverbs or adverbial phrases that affect the meaning of the entire sentence from the rest of the sentence.

     Such words and phrases often come at the beginning of a sentence, although they can also be inserted.

    • Por supuesto, no puedo comprenderlo. (Of course, I can't understand it.)
    • Por lo contrario, la realidad argentina no difiere de la dominicana. (To the contrary, the Argentine reality doesn't differ from the Dominican reality.)
    • Naturalmente, gana mucho dinero. Naturally, he earns a lot of money. (Without the comma, the Spanish sentence would become the equivalent of "He naturally earns a lot of money," so that naturalmente would describe just the word gana rather than the entire sentence.)
    • Sin embargo, pienso que eres muy talentosa. (Nevertheless, I think you're very talented.)
    • El tráfico de bebés, desgraciadamente, es una realidad. (The trafficking of babies, unfortunately, is a reality.)

    Using Commas in Compound Sentences

    It is not unusual to join two sentences into one and combine them into one, often with y in Spanish or "and" in English. A comma should also be used before the conjunction.

    • Roma es el centro espiritual del catolicismo, y su centro ha sido declarado Patrimonio de la Humanidad por UNESCO. (Rome is the spiritual center of Catholicism, and its center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)
    • Muchos lagos se forman por la obstrucción de valles debido a avalanchas, y también se puede formar un lago artificialmente por la construcción de una presa. (Many lakes are formed by the obstruction of valleys due to avalanches, and a lake also can be formed artificially by the construction of a dam.)

    If a compound sentence is very short, the comma can be omitted: Te amo y la amo. (I love you and I love her.)

    Using the Decimal Comma

    In Spain, South America and parts of Central America, the comma and period are used in long numbers in the opposite way that they are in American English. Thus 123,456,789.01 in English becomes 123.456.789,01 in most areas where Spanish is used. However, in Mexico, Puerto Rico and parts of Central America, however, the convention used in American English is followed.

    When Not To Use the Comma

    Perhaps one of the most common misuses of the comma in Spanish by English speakers is its use in salutations in letters. In Spanish, the salutation should be followed by a colon. Thus letters should begin, for example, with "Querido Juan:" rather than following Juan with a comma.

    Also, as a general rule, as in English, a comma should not be used to separate the subject of a sentence from the main verb unless necessary to separate words of apposition or intervening phrases.

    • Correct: El año pasado era muy difícil. (The past year was very difficult.)
    • Incorrect: El año pasado, era muy difícil. (The past year, was very difficult.)