Punctuation is more important than you might think.
Sometimes it can save lives.
Let me show you this with an example, which is famous among grammar nerds:
¡Vamos a comer, niños! (Let’s eat, kids!)
¡Vamos a comer niños! (Let’s eat kids!)
Fairy tale witches might be happy with the second sentence…
But for the rest of us, that comma is saving some children from a terrifying demise.
And as you can see, the importance of punctuation holds true for both Spanish and English.
But that does not mean all punctuation marks are used the same in both languages.
In the following paragraphs I will teach you how and when to use the main Spanish punctuation marks. I will show you the differences in use, if there are any, and I will provide lots and lots of examples so that you can see each of them “at work.”
At the end of this post you will be able to write with confidence without ever having to worry whether your mistakes have put any lives in danger.
Why Is Learning Spanish Punctuation Important?
We all know that we finish sentences by using a period, we separate items in a list with commas and we close questions with question marks. You might think that is all you need to know, but if you really want to be fluent in Spanish, it is not!
But understanding Spanish punctuation has a broader benefit, as well—it will make Spanish grammar easier by forcing you to think about sentence structure and parts of speech.
Ultimately, mastering Spanish punctuation is an important way to cut down on mistakes and start using the language like a pro.
Spanish Punctuation in a Nutshell: How to Use 10+ Essential Marks
1. Punto (Period)
The period is the punctuation mark we use in order to tell the reader he or she needs to make a long pause. Generally speaking, periods come at the end of the sentence (as long as it is not a question or an exclamation) and they tell us the main idea of the sentence has been conveyed and we can make a pause.
El niño juega en el parque. (The boy is playing in the park.)
Tengo sueño. (I am sleepy.)
Easy! You convey your message and close it with a period. Cool and simple. Everybody knows that, I am sure.
What maybe not everybody knows is that there are three important different kinds of periods in Spanish: the punto y seguido, the punto y aparte and the punto final.
If we translate their names literally, we get “period and continued,” “period and aside” and “final period,” respectively.
And what is the difference between them?
We use a punto y seguido when we keep on writing after that period without starting a new paragraph. All the periods inside a paragraph except for the last one are puntos y seguido.
For the sake of space, the following examples are not whole paragraphs but pairs of sentences together. The periods separating each pair of sentences is a punto y seguido:
Tengo sueño. Me voy a la cama. (I am sleepy. I am going to bed.)
He comprado un coche. El coche es rojo. (I have bought a car. The car is red.)
We use a punto y aparte when we want to start a new paragraph. Typically with the punto y aparte we mark a change of topic or an idea not directly related to the previous one:
Cerró la puerta y…
(…when she arrived.
She closed the door and…)
Finally, a punto final is any period that closes a single isolated sentence or closes the whole writing. I know it may seem a bit weird to have a specific name for something that only occurs once in a chapter, essay or composition, but since we have it, why not boast about it?
Take the closest book you have. Open it and have a look at the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last page. There will probably be a period. There you have your example of a punto final.
2. Coma (Comma)
The uses of the comma in Spanish and English are very similar. We mainly use it to make shorter pauses in a sentence, separate items on a list or add explanatory phrases:
Mis colores favoritos son el rojo, el amarillo y el verde. (My favorite colors are red, yellow and green.)
Mi hermano, que es médico, vive en Barcelona. (My brother, who is a doctor, lives in Barcelona)
However, there are a couple of differences between the use of the comma in American English and Spanish. Have a look:
When writing quotation marks (more on those later in this post), add the comma after them in Spanish, but include the comma before them in American English:
“Tengo sueño”, dijo María. (“I am sleepy,” said María.)
“He comprado un coche rojo”, dije. (“I have bought a red car,” I said.)
When you have a long number, especially if it is a decimal one, use commas and periods in Spanish in the opposite way you would do it in English:
Remember one last thing regarding commas, both in Spanish and English: you typically should not separate a subject from its predicate by a comma.
Incorrect: Ella, ha comprado un coche. (She, has bought a car.)
Correct: Ella ha comprado un coche. (She has bought a car.)
3. Dos puntos (Colon)
As it happened with the comma, the use of the colon in Spanish and English is pretty much the same.
Although it can be used for many different purposes, when it comes to writing, the colon is mainly used to indicate that what comes next is an explanation of what has just been said, an enumeration, a list or a quote.
Estaba cansado: había estado escribiendo toda la noche. (He was tired: he had been writing all night long.)
When read aloud, the pause for the colon is generally longer than the comma’s, but shorter than the period’s.
You typically need to write a lowercase letter after the colon. Even though we call the colon two points in Spanish, that does not mean it follows the same rules as the period!
There is one last thing you should bear in mind when using the colon in Spanish. Everybody writes letters or emails. There are literally thousands of ways of starting a letter, but let us say the easiest one is writing “Dear Mr. X,” and then continuing on another line.
If you have a look, you will notice you add a comma after “Mr. X” in English. Avoid doing this in Spanish! Instead, use a colon because… well, just because!
So remember to write it properly when you start writing an email to your boss!
4. Punto y coma (Semicolon)
I have always loved that the semicolon is called punto y coma in Spanish, because you actually have to write a period and a comma to produce a semicolon.
But besides that, I think the semicolon is not only the punctuation mark I have used the least in my life, but also the one that took me the longest amount of time to understand!
The semicolon is some weird hybrid between a comma and a period. It is like a comma and a period but it is neither the former nor the latter… it is here to complicate our lives… only if we let it win!
The truth is, the semicolon is very easy to use, and it is used in the same exact way in both English and Spanish.
So when should we use it?
There are two main uses of the semicolon, and while one is very precise and easy to understand, the other is abstract and absolutely open to interpretation. But we will start with the easier one:
- Use the semicolon when making a list in order to separate the different items, especially if the items are long sentences and include commas. Easy. Here the semicolon acts as a “bigger brother” who tries to help the comma so it knows when each items ends.
Me gusta hacer muchas cosas, sobre todo viajar por el mundo; descubrir nuevas culturas, si tengo tiempo, claro; y comer la comida local. (I like to do a lot of things, especially travel around the world; discover new cultures, if I have the time, of course; and eat the local food).
- Use the semicolon instead of the period in order to join independent clauses if they are closely related to each other. For example:
En verano voy a España; en invierno voy a las montañas. (In summer I go to Spain; in winter I go to the mountains.)
Tu hermano es médico; mi hermano es profesor. (Your brother is a doctor; my brother is a professor.)
If the sentences are short, do not overthink it. Just use a comma.
Te amo, te adoro. (I love you, I adore you).
5. Puntos suspensivos (Ellipsis)
The ellipsis is another punctuation mark that works practically the same way in Spanish as in English.
Lately, especially thanks to the use of texts, instant messaging and emails, a lot of people tend to overuse it by adding it to the end of almost every sentence. However, the uses of the ellipsis are very well defined and we should go back to using it properly.
Of the many uses of the ellipsis, the three main ones are:
- To mark an interruption or speech that trails off. This is the main use of the ellipsis.
Pensaba que me querías… (I thought you loved me…)
Algún día lo entenderás… (Someday you will get it…)
- To show fear or suspense. This time you use the ellipsis to make a pause, but then you continue with your speech or writing:
Y entonces… lo maté. (And then… I killed him.)
Oí una voz… pero no podía ver nada… estaba temblando… (I heard a voice… but I could not see anything… I was shaking…)
- To make a non-comprehensive list of items. When you add the ellipsis at the end of the list, the reader understands there are more examples aside from the ones you are naming:
Tenemos todos los colores: azul, amarillo, rojo, rosa, verde… (We have all the colors: blue, yellow, red, pink, green…)
Algunos ejemplos de esto pueden ser perros, gatos, pájaros, conejos, peces… (Some examples of this can be dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, fish…)
6. Signo de interrogación (Question Mark)
The question mark is one of the easiest-to-use punctuation marks because it is universally used to close questions.
The only thing you need to remember and bear in mind is that in Spanish you need to use an inverted question mark (also known as an opening question mark) at the beginning of every question!
Do Spanish people write it? Yes, we do!
Is it necessary? Yes, it is!
Will I get lower grades if I leave it out? Yes, of course!
Forget about lazy Spanish people who now have a tendency to ignore the opening question mark when chatting or writing emails. That is as big an error as writing “velieve” instead of “believe” or using a comma at the end of a sentence. Just learn to use it, because it is a must!
Here you have some examples:
¿Qué hora es? (What time is it?)
¿Cómo te llamas? (What is your name?)
¿Estás seguro? (Are you sure?)
7. Signo de exclamación (Exclamation Point)
We have exactly the same situation when it comes to the exclamation point. We use it for the same purpose both in Spanish and English, but we need to add exclamation points at the beginning of every exclamation.
Once again, do not try to find excuses and ignore the lazy people who try not to use it. You would not start a sentence with a lowercase letter, right? Exactly…
¡Qué bonito! (How beautiful!)
¡No lo hagas! (Do not do it!)
¡Me estoy volviendo loco! (I am going crazy!)
8. Guion y raya (Hyphen and Em-dash)
I have a confession to make: I used to get lost every time I had to use the hyphen and the em-dash because, for me, they have always been one and the same thing, except one is longer than the other…
Do not judge me, nobody is perfect!
However, I can share a little trick with you that has made my life easier and has helped me remember (most of the time) when I should use each of them.
To put it simply, remember the following: the raya separates and the guion unites.
Once you internalize that little mnemonic, you will easily remember that we use the raya to separate the different voices in a dialog in Spanish (i.e., each new line of dialog is separated from the rest and starts with an em-dash):
—Hola, María. (—Hello, María.)
—Hola, ¿qué tal estás? (—Hello, how are you?)
—Muy bien, gracias. (—Very well, thanks.)
The em-dash can also be used in Spanish to separate side notes or explanatory information somewhat like parentheses, although this usage is more common in English than Spanish.
We use the hyphen to unite. In other words hyphens can show two words are related, show the rest of a word continues on the next line or show that two numbers form an interval.
páginas 45-50 (pages 45-50)
There are other minor uses of the em-dash and hyphen, but if you master this little trick, you are good to go for sure!
9. Paréntesis (Parentheses)
Parentheses are another punctuation mark you use practically in the same way in Spanish as in English.
Parentheses can be used for many different purposes, but there is always one thing in common: you will always need an opening parenthesis and a closing one.
The main uses of the parentheses in Spanish are:
- To clarify aside from the main point. This use of the parentheses is quite subjective, because sometimes they can be replaced by commas and the sentence remains the same. Where should you draw the line?
There is not a universal answer to this question, but bear in mind the closer you are to the main point, the better it is to use commas:
María (mi vecina) es estudiante. María (my neighbor) is a student.
El coche de mi hermano (un BMW) es blanco. My brother’s car (a BMW) is white.
- To add meanings of abbreviations. It is not compulsory, but it is always good practice if you think the reader may have problems with the text:
OMS (Organización Mundial de la Salud). WHO (World Health Organization).
- To add dates and/or places. This is quite self-explanatory, so just have a look at the examples:
Vivo en Madrid (España). I live in Madrid (Spain).
La Segunda Guerra Mundial (1939-1945) fue un conflicto militar global. WWII (1939-1945) was a global military conflict.
10. Comillas españolas (Angle Quotes) and Comillas inglesas (Quotation Marks)
Even though there are different kinds of quotes, almost every language has a preference and will make use of one type more often than the others.
Spanish uses three types of quotes: guillemets or angle quotes (« »), quotation marks (” “) and simple quotation marks (‘ ‘), but our favorite are the guillemets.
In recent years, more and more Spanish-speaking people are using the so-called English quotation marks (” “), but Spanish newspapers and publishing houses in general tend to stick to tradition and keep on using angle quotes.
But what are angle quotes for?
We can use angle quotes for many different reasons, but the common denominator is always one: we are marking another level in the sentence. This “new level” can be a quotation, an ironic remark, a different sense of a common word, an expression, a thought or even a foreign word, but overall it is on a different level than the rest of the sentence, and we need to indicate that.
So, imagine you are writing a text in Spanish and want to quote what an author said in a book. How would you let the reader know the following words are on a different level and have not been written or said by you? Exactly! You use angle quotes:
…como dijo José M., «Eso es una pena». (…as José M. said, “That is a pity.”)
As I have just mentioned, you can also use angle quotes to mark irony, add expressions or use words with an uncommon meaning.
Compré este vestido en una «boutique». (I bought this dress in a “boutique.”)
Eres un chico muy «inteligente». (You are a very “intelligent” guy.)
Earlier I mentioned Spanish makes use of three different kind of quotes. But why? Well, it would be a real mess to have quotes inside of quotes inside of quotes if you used the same angle marks all the time!
Chaos, I tell you!
The following example is written twice. In the first instance I have used angle quotes only. The second one contains three different types of quotes. Which one is more clear and prettier to you?
Entonces dijo: «Me parece que decir «compar en una «boutique»» es algo muy tonto». (Then he said: “I think saying “buying in a “boutique” is something very silly.”)
Entonces dijo: «Me parece que decir “comprar en una ’boutique'” es algo muy tonto». (Then he said: “I think saying ‘buying in a ’boutique'” is something very silly.”)
Where to Practice Using Spanish Punctuation
Now that you have studied the theory, how about doing some exercises so you can check if you have understood everything?
In the first part of this section you will have some sentences with punctuation errors. You task will be to find the errors and correct them.
You will find the correct answers just below.
In the second part, I will give you some external links where you can practice more Spanish punctuation if you feel you still need some more.
Are you ready?
Find and Correct the Mistakes in the Following Sentences:
Pepe, corre por el parque.
Me gusta cocinar
Compré uno verde; uno amarillo y uno azul.
Nació en Sevilla, España.
No sabía lo que significaba “bailar el agua”.
Una ONG – Organización No Gubernamental – es imprescindible en la zona.
No puedo lo siento.
He comprado zumo. Manzanas, peras y leche.
Pepe corre por el parque.
Me gusta cocinar.
Compré uno verde, uno amarillo y uno azul.
Nació en Sevilla (España).
No sabía lo que significaba «bailar el agua».
Una ONG (Organización No Gubernamental) es imprescindible en la zona.
No puedo, lo siento.
He comprado zumo, manzanas, peras y leche.
Online Practice Resources
Punctuation is one of those dry topics that teachers like me love (love!) to delve into and practice until our eyes are red. You do not need to do that in order to master Spanish punctuation, but some more practice will certainly serve you well.
Here is another one for mastering the semicolon, colon and parentheses. Okay, and here is one more!
Finally, if you think you are the master of Spanish punctuation and are not afraid of challenges, I recommend you try these exercises based on texts (including parts of “Don Quixote!”). You are going to sweat!
All these punctuation marks may be confusing at the beginning, but I promise after you do a couple of exercises, you will learn to see the differences.
I hope after reading this post you feel more comfortable when presented with writing assignments or any time you need to write a letter or email to your friend or your new boss!
I have certainly enjoyed showing you a little part of the marvellous world of punctuation, and I really hope you have enjoyed learning about it as well.
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