Why do the Spanish use upside-down question and exclamation marks?

It must have happened at least once in your life, dear friends of STUDIOTRE, that you were reading a text in Spanish and found an upside-down question or exclamation mark at the start of the sentence.

Today, we’ll tell you the origins behind this particular linguistic rule.

How did this inverted punctuation in Spanish come about?

In Spanish, like in Italian, in some cases, the sentence syntax doesn’t help differentiate between a question or exclamation and a simple statement, a difference that we can only grasp thanks to the intonation of the speaker’s voice and to the question “?” and exclamation “!” marks in writing.

In the past, there was also a single question and exclamation mark in Spanish, and it was only placed at the end of the sentence. In order to make communication easier, in 1754, the second edition of the “Ortografía de la Real Academia” (the Spanish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary) established the rule of adding an upside-down question and exclamation mark at the start of the sentence to questions and exclamations.

In this way, you could clearly indicate a question or exclamation and therefore adjust the intonation of your voice right from the first few syllables.

This rule was initially only adopted for ambiguous or very long sentences, but was officially introduced everywhere from 1870.

Upside-down punctuation in Spanish in 2020

New communication tools are having a significant impact on the use of upside-down punctuation. In fact, it seems that in chat threads, text messages and e-mails – especially in informal contexts – the Spanish are abandoning the rule set by the Real Academia in favour of a single question or exclamation mark, the right way round and placed at the end of the sentence.

Friends of STUDIOTRE, do any of you who speak Spanish also use upside-down punctuation in informal chat threads, text messages or e-mails? Share your experience with us by sending us an e-mail or on our Facebook page.


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