A Guide To The Most Important Italian Punctuation Marks

Don’t worry, Italian punctuation isn’t too different from English.
Italian punctuation represented by a woman sitting at a table and using her phone while also working on a laptop representing Italian punctuation.

When we’re learning to speak and write in a new language, there’s no getting around the fact that mistakes are almost inevitable. But if you had to pick the hardest part about written language, what would it be? If you’re like a lot of people, you’d probably say punctuation. Punctuation is a vital part of language, but it can also be one of the hardest things to learn because it has rather imprecise rules. While there’s definitely a grey area, other rules are set in stone. In this article, we’ll tell you all about Italian punctuation rules so you can punctuate in style!

The Main Punctuation Marks

Before we get started, let’s review the most common punctuation marks in Italian.

English Symbol Italian
Period (or full stop) . Punto (o punto fermo)
Comma , Virgola
Semicolon ; Punto e virgola
Colon : Due punti
Ellipsis Punti di sospensione
Quotation marks ” “ Virgolette
Apostrophe Apostrofo
Dash Trattino
Em Dash Trattino lungo
Parentheses ( ) Parentesi tonda
Exclamation mark ! Punto esclamativo
Question mark ? Punto interrogativo

One of the most important Italian punctuation rules to keep in mind is the use of the double space after a punctuation mark. In Italian, the space always goes after the punctuation mark, never before.

A: Ieri sono andata dal dottore perché non mi sentivo bene. (“Yesterday I went to the doctor because I didn’t feel well.”)
B: Spero vada tutto bene! (“I hope you’re feeling well!”)
A: Sì, grazie! Tu come stai, invece? (“Yes, thank you! And how are you?”)
B: Non c’è male, grazie per avermelo chiesto! (“Not bad, thank you for asking!”)

There are a few important exceptions, however: the space is put before, not after parentheses and quotation marks, and for dashes, the space goes before and after.

Since the period, question mark and exclamation mark indicate the end of a sentence, you have to use a capital letter after using these punctuation marks (unless the period is used for an abbreviation). All other punctuation marks are followed by a lowercase letter.

What Are Punctuation Marks For?

In Italian grammar, punctuation marks play three fundamental roles:

  • to create a pause in the sentence, speech or conversation.
  • to indicate a grammatical coordination and syntactic subordination relationship, or hierarchy between sentences.
  • to set the tone of a discussion.

The Most Important Punctuation Rules In Italian

Using The Period

Let’s start with the period. The rules surrounding the use of a period in Italian are pretty simple; it’s used to end an affirmative sentence. The period is also used for abbreviations (for example ad es., ecc., lett.)

Using The Comma

There’s no doubt that the comma is one of the hardest punctuation marks to use. The reason is simple: it has a lot of uses. There are a few rules of thumb to follow when you’re using a comma. It’s used:

  • when you’re making a list. Ho mangiato del gelato, un po’ di frutta, la cioccolata e ho terminato con il caffè. (“I ate gelato, a bit of fruit, some chocolate, and I finished it off with a coffee.”)
  • before a conjunction in order to mark a transition in the sentence. Non ho detto che verrò, ma potrei. (“I didn’t say I’d come, but I could.”)
  • to emphasize a word or phrase that adds information and isolate it from the rest of the sentence. Mara, che non ha mai amato il tennis, andrà a Wimbledon la prossima settimana. (“Mara, who never liked tennis, will go to Wimbledon next week.”)
  • in a hypothetical sentence to separate the two clauses. Se mi avessi chiamato, lo sapresti. (“If you’d have called me, you would’ve found out.”)

It should be noted that in addition to the rules like the ones above, the comma’s use is also influenced by stylistic choices. For example, you might hear from an Italian teacher that the comma never goes before the conjunction “and” because it would be redundant, but that’s not necessarily true. A lot of writers do in fact use the comma before the word “and” as a stylistic choice. There are, however, a few cases where the comma is never put between two words, including:

  • between the subject and the verb.
  • between the verb and the direct object.
  • between the noun and the respective adjective.

Using The Semicolon

The semicolon might seem like a punctuation mark that’s only used by sophisticated writers, but it’s actually a very useful mark. You may have (correctly) guessed that a semicolon indicates a pause that’s longer than a comma but shorter than a period, but when are you supposed to use it? Well, you use it when you think a comma isn’t enough of a pause, but you don’t want to abruptly end the sentence either.

An example that’s very useful is when you want to connect two sentences that have different subjects but are loosely connected. For example, Il regista si arrabbiò e cominciò a strepitare; l’attore, per tutta risposta, se ne andò sbattendo la porta. (“The director got mad and started ranting and raving; the actor stormed off and slammed the door in response.”)

Another way that the semicolon is used is when you’re listing a lot of different things, and you need to separate them with something stronger than a comma. For example, if you’re making a list with bullet points, you’ll put a semicolon after each item instead of a comma.

Using The Colon

The colon is used to introduce or announce something, for example, “It’s time to tell you the truth: I didn’t buy the couch.” It’s also often used to introduce a direct quote. For example, Paolo si girò e disse: “Venite a vedere le bancarelle con noi.” (Paolo turned around and said: “Come here and look at the stands with us.”)

Using The Ellipsis

The ellipsis always consists of three periods and has the specific purpose of expressing doubt, a long pause or to add suspense. For example, E il vincitore è… Luca Marinelli! (“And the winner is…Luca Marinelli!”)

Using The Exclamation Mark

The exclamation point adds particular emphasis to an affirmation, which can be one of joy, anger, surprise or frustration. It’s also used to emphasize a command, like Vieni! Ho bisogno di parlarti. (“Come here! I need to talk to you.”)

Using The Question Mark

The question mark is probably the easiest to use in terms of punctuation rules. It’s used just like it is in almost every other language spoken in the world (except for Spanish). It’s used to indicate what’s being asked, for example, Cosa non ti è chiaro dei segni di interpunzione? (“Is anything unclear about punctuation marks?”)

A version of this article originally appeared on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.

Want to learn more Italian?
Try Babbel