Upside down punctuation: understand this grammatical rule in the Spanish language
Find out why and when it is used
Upside down punctuation in Spanish is certainly one of the most striking details in that language, and attracts the attention of those who do not speak it.
According to the 2019 edition of Ethnologue, a global benchmark in linguistics, Spanish is the fourth most spoken language in the world: 460.1 million people have it as their native language and 74.2 million as their secondary language, which totals 534.3 million speakers.
Even though it is so common (it is only behind English, Mandarin – including Traditional Chinese – and Hindi), few people know the reasons why some punctuation symbols are used upside down at the beginning or in the middle of sentences, and this makes Spanish an easily distinguishable language.
You will understand what is behind this, and this text will help you handle the use of this grammar rule when you come across it the next time.
Why is upside down punctuation in Spanish used?
To distinguish interrogative or exclamatory sentences from traditional ones, in order to help in their identification, considering that their syntax is sometimes the same, which can cause confusion.
For example, sentences “¿Te gusta el verano?” and “Te gusta el verano.”, the first is a question, while the second is an affirmation. However, both sentences are written exactly the same.
For native speakers of Portuguese, this may not seem so strange because in “Você gosta do verão?” and “Você gosta do verão.”, the first is a question and the second is an affirmation, exactly as it happens in Spanish, but Portuguese does not use upside down punctuation.
However, for speakers of other languages, such as English, syntax is handled differently: the question would be “Do you like summer?”, while the affirmation would be “You like summer.”, or “You do like Summer.”, that is, it is possible to identify questions and affirmations even without looking at the punctuation mark.
When was upside down punctuation first used in the Spanish language?
Actually, it wasn’t until recently, which some people wouldn’t guess. In fact, when analyzing the origins of Spanish, dating back to 210 BC, the measure is quite recent.
Officially, upside down punctuation in Spanish was recommended in 1754 by Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy).
However, almost a century earlier, in 1668, author John Wilkins proposed the use of an upside down exclamation mark (¡) as a way of denoting irony in a given sentence.
Erasmus of Rotterdam also advocated for the use of this type of punctuation, although only the recommendation from Real Academia Española was adopted.
In fact, even after such a recommendation, its adoption occurred gradually over the following century. Nowadays, its use is already widespread among Spanish speakers.
It consists of the question mark (¿) and the exclamation mark (¡), with the other symbols being used normally. Nevertheless, there are rules and correct times to use upside down punctuation symbols, since they do not always appear at the beginning of sentences.
For example, in the sentence “Si no puedes ir con ellos, ¿quieres ir con nosotros?” (“If you can’t go with them, do you want to go with us?”), upside down punctuation is not used at the beginning of the sentence, but when the question begins.
Something similar occurs in “Sin embargo, ¡tengo frío!” (“However, I am cold!”), a sentence where the upside down exclamation mark is used when the sentence takes on an exclamatory tone.
It is important to note that upside down punctuation in Spanish can also be combined. In “¡Me amas?” (“Do you love me?”), the sentence can indicate a certain disbelief on the part of the questioner, as in a mix of question and affirmation.
In “¡¿Qué veste?!” (“What did you see?”), there is also a certain tone of disbelief, but with higher intensity than in the example seen earlier.
Upside down punctuation in Spanish also accepts the use of two or even three exclamation marks in sequence when one wants to intensely highlight a feeling, as in “Es imposible. ¡¡¡No lo creo!!!” (“It’s impossible. I can’t believe it!”).
What are the challenges posed by upside down punctuation in Spanish?
It can be said that one of the main challenges is the fact that people who do not master the language believe that it is enough to eliminate the upside down punctuation symbol used at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence to know what it means, but this is not the case.
As we have already seen, there is much more involved in upside down punctuation in Spanish than simply removing it from the sentences, since the position in which it is used changes the tone of the sentence.
In addition, it is also possible to combine punctuation marks, be it an upside down exclamation mark at the beginning and a traditional question mark at the end or a pair of both punctuation marks at the beginning and end of the sentences, among other variations.
Even so, on a daily basis, upside down punctuation in Spanish can be viewed with relative naturality, but this is not the case when you need professional services.
It is up to professional translators to identify exactly what the author wanted to convey and, then, preserve the essence of that content, i.e., it is really more complicated than it may seem at first.
Also, when analyzing how this rule confers a much greater versatility to the language, it is clear why those who speak Spanish get used to it and miss it when they have contact with another language in which punctuation symbols are used only in the traditional way.
Upside down punctuation in Spanish is an interesting rule, especially after you understand how it works. It also shows us that is necessary to count on a great translation agency to provide you with professional language services, thus preserving content accuracy and key elements.