If you’ve studied Spanish, grown up around it or merely encountered Spanish-language signage at the airport that one time on your way back from spring break, then you’ve probably wondered what the deal was with the Spanish question mark. Although Arabic and Persian both use inverted question marks (so, a backwards question mark, not an upside down one), Spanish is relatively unique among world languages for its use of upside down punctuation, specifically at the beginning of sentences or clauses that end in a normal question or exclamation mark. It’s almost as if you’re getting a heads up in advance that you’ll have to read the following phrase with a different intonation.
It doesn’t take much practice or exposure to the language to immediately grasp the utility of this feature. In fact, once you get the hang of it, you might start to wonder why more languages didn’t follow the lead of Spanish. While this last part may feel like a much more open-ended question, you’re probably here because you’re wondering what the point of upside punctuation is, and how it got there in the first place.
The History Of The Spanish Question Mark (And Exclamation Mark)
The Spanish question mark is a (relatively) recent invention. Inverted punctuation was first recommended by the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) in the 18th century. In 1754, the Real Academia published the second edition of Ortografía de la lengua castellana (“Orthography of the Castilian language”). The inverted question mark was recommended as a symbol that would indicate the beginning of a question; likewise for the inverted exclamation point.
At the time, not everyone adopted the Real Academia’s suggestion. Trying to change a language is never simple. And while the inverted question mark is a part of standard Spanish today, this hesitance never fully went away. Pablo Neruda, a 20th century poet, famously refused to use it in his writing, and inverted punctuation is sometimes omitted in text messages or on the internet.
Though Spanish is the only language to currently use inverted punctuation, the folks at the Real Academia weren’t the first to think it might be useful. In 1668, Anglican philosopher John Wilkins suggested the use of an inverted exclamation mark at the end of a sentence to denote irony, but it didn’t catch on.
Why It’s So Grammatically Useful
Inverted punctuation is a feature of Spanish that exists to mark the beginning of an interrogative or exclamatory sentence or clause. Essentially, the clause is book-ended by an upside down question mark or exclamation mark at the beginning, followed by a standard punctuation mark at the end.
Here are examples of what this looks like in practice.
¿Tú vives aquí? — Do you live here?
¡Él no responde mis mensajes! — He’s not answering my messages!
One of the main reasons this is needed in Spanish is because there’s no other way to distinguish a written statement or question that would otherwise be worded in the same exact way. The syntax of the phrase would still be the same whether it was a statement, question or exclamation, so the upside down Spanish question mark essentially functions as an added reading comprehension guide. In spoken Spanish this is solved by using a specific inflection, but you can’t indicate tone in writing. Essentially, you wouldn’t be able to guess if written sentences are interrogative or declarative without the upside down punctuation.
Another relatively unique thing that inverted punctuation allows for in Spanish is the combination of question marks and exclamation marks in the same clause. You can begin a clause with an upside down exclamation point and end it with a regular question mark to convey that it’s a question with some amount of added emotion or angst behind it. You know what I mean?!