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How Does Spanish Use Upside-Down Punctuation?

Question and Exclamation Marks Can Be Combined

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sign with inverted punctuation

¿Te vas a casar? ¡Aprovecha! (Are you going to get married? Enjoy!)

Photo by Nacho; licensed via Creative Commons.

Question: What's with the upside-down question marks and exclamation points?

Answer: 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, you can tell long before the end of a sentence whether you're dealing with a question, something that isn't always obvious when the sentence doesn't start with an interrogative pronoun such as qué or cómo.

The important thing to remember when you're writing Spanish 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?
  • Sin embargo, ¡tengo frío! Nevertheless, I'm cold!
Note that the question part of the sentence does not typically begin with a capitalized letter as it would if it were considered part of a separate sentence. Note also that if parts of the sentence that aren't part of the question come after the question, the whole sentence is included within the question marks:
  • ¿Adónde vas, Pablo? Where are you going, Pablo?

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 in ways shown below. The Royal Spanish Academy prefers the usage in the third and fourth sentences:

  • ¿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 viste?! What are you seeing? (The tone of voice may suggest "What in the world are you seeing?")
  • ¿¡Qué estás diciendo!? What are you saying? (The tone of voice may indicate disbelief.)
To indicate an extremely strong exclamation, it is acceptable to use two or three exclamation points (not more): ¡¡¡Idiota!!! Idiot!

 

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