For English speakers, Spanish punctuation is pretty standard.
A period is still a period, even if it’s called a punto.
A coma (comma) still shows a division of ideas or a pause in dialogue.
So, no news in the Spanish punctuation department, right?
Or is there?
Actually, there’s one small bit of punctuation news.
It’s all ho-hum until that upside-down question mark shows up, isn’t it?
And that’s where the mystery comes in. You’re probably wondering just what those upside-down question marks are. More importantly, how do we use them?
Don’t worry. There’s no real secret to mastering the upside-down Spanish question mark.
They’ve been used for centuries without difficulty. The Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), the entity that oversees the Spanish language, actually began using them in 1754—so they’re nothing new to this beautiful language!
Come on—let’s decipher this mystery!
What’s Up with the Spanish Upside-down Question Mark? The Mystery, Explained
Why the Upside-down Question Mark Is Used
The upside-down question mark is just one of the standard Spanish punctuation marks used to clarify and communicate what’s going on when the language is in its written form.
Depending on where you are and who you’re speaking with, you might hear this punctuation mark called an inverted or opening question mark.
It has a few distinct purposes, making it a very versatile and well-used part of written Spanish.
Let’s see what it’s commonly used for.
To Indicate a Question Is Imminent
The upside-down question mark is an early sign of what’s to come—namely, a question!
This punctuation mark’s main function it to relay that a question is being asked.
¿Cómo estás? (How are you?)
¿Quieres un poco más de agua? (Would you like some more water?)
¿A qué hora cierra la tienda? (What time does the store close?)
To Take the Place of an Interrogative Word
The upside-down question mark can also take the place of interrogative words.
The commonly used Spanish interrogative words are:
¿Cuánto? (How much?)
¿Por qué? (Why?)
Most of the time we use an interrogative word at the beginning of a question. But shortening a question often conveys the message without losing its meaning, even without an interrogative word at its beginning.
The tone shows that a question is being asked and the (missing) interrogative word is implied—and understood.
¿Dónde está el baño? (Where is the bathroom?) → ¿El baño? (The bathroom?)
¿Cuándo llega el tren? (When is the train arriving?) → ¿El tren? (The train?)
¿Pasarías la sal? (Would you pass the salt?) → ¿La sal? (The salt?)
To Signify a Spot to Raise Speaking Tone
This punctuation symbol shows where to raise the tone in a sentence or phrase. It signifies that the passage is a question, rather than a statement, so readers know to raise their tone if speaking the written words aloud.
Raising your speaking tone turns a statement into a question and the upside-down question marks indicates that you should do so.
Juan va a la florería. (Juan goes to the flower shop. ) → ¿Juan va a la florería? (Is Juan going to the flower shop?)
Hablas inglés. (You speak English.) → ¿Hablas inglés? (Do you speak English?)
El autobús llega muy tarde. (The bus is very late.) → ¿El autobús llega muy tarde? (Is the bus very late?)
How to Use Upside-down Question Marks
Just remember that when you’re asking a written question in Spanish, you’ll need to use two question marks. It’s twice the fun!
You need to put upside-down question marks at the beginning of a question as well as at the end of one.
¿Cómo te llamas? (What is your name?)
¿A qué hora llegaron a la fiesta? (What time did you all arrive to the party?)
You may notice that the upside-down question mark is becoming less common in casual writing. When texting, using WhatsApp or writing informally, Spanish speakers won’t always use it, and you probably don’t have to, either.
Still, expect to see the upside-down question mark in books, standard writing and even in movie subtitles.
Using the Upside-down Question Mark in the Middle of a Sentence
Take note: We said that the upside-down question mark is placed at the beginning of a question. However, that doesn’t always mean that it’s placed at the beginning of a sentence. Sometimes, it appears within a sentence.
If it’s not placed at the beginning of a sentence, it’s placed at the start of the actual question within the sentence.
That sounds complicated, but it’s not. One of the most common times you’ll see upside-down question marks in the middle of a sentence is with tag questions, which are used to check on a fact that the speaker believes is true.
Eres la prima de Pablo, ¿no? (You’re Pablo’s cousin, aren’t you?)
Esta camisa es nueva, ¿verdad? (This shirt is new, isn’t it?)
In general, you can use your tone of voice (as discussed above) to determine where the question mark belongs. Look for the part of a sentence that reads like a question, and then surround it with question marks.
Si bailamos, ¿ellos también van a bailar? (If we dance, will they dance too?)
Vamos a cenar sushi, ¿te parece bien? (We’re going to have sushi for dinner, does that sound good?)
To get the hang of this, it’s a great idea to read in Spanish. A fun, interactive way to get reading practice is with the help of FluentU.
Each video comes with a full audio transcript and interactive subtitles, so you can read along as you watch and listen.
After watching a few videos, you’ll start to see exactly where to place the upside-down question mark! Check out the FluentU free trial to start your immersion journey.
Using Upside-down Question Marks with Exclamation Points
Much like question marks, Spanish exclamation points also appear in pairs, with the first one upside-down.
Don’t be surprised to see passages that use both upside-down question marks as well as upside-down exclamation points.
¡Buenos días! ¿A dónde vas, Susana? (Good morning! Where are you going, Susana?)
¡Ayuda! ¿A dónde va con mi bolso? (Help! Where is she going with my purse?)
¡Ahora no! ¿Podemos hablar después? (Not now! Can we talk later?)
How to Type Upside-down Question Marks
Using a Mac
To type the upside-down question mark on a Mac, place the cursor where you want the punctuation point to appear. Then depress the Option and Shift keys. Finally, hit the question mark key to type the upside-down question mark.
Using a PC
It’s a snap to type the upside-down question mark on a PC. Just hit the Alt key and type 168 to type this Spanish punctuation mark.
If you’re using an international keyboard setting, you can get the upside-down question mark by holding down Control + Alt + Shift, and then pressing the “/” key.
To type other Spanish punctuation marks, Useful Shortcuts provides a handy reference table that’s very concise!
Using an iPhone or iPad
To insert the upside-down question mark using an iPhone or iPad, access the conventional question mark on the device’s keyboard. Press the question mark and hold it down. A little blue bubble will appear above the question mark, offering the option to use either a question mark like the one on the keyboard or the upside-down mark.
Using an Android Device
Android devices users have a quick and easy way to use Spanish punctuation on their devices: Just select the “sym” (for “symbols”) on your keyboard, and navigate to the second page. There, you can find both the upside down question mark and the upside down exclamation point.
For more precise typing, Spanish Keyboard is an app that makes all Spanish punctuation—including upside-down question marks—readily accessible.
Learning Spanish is a wonderful undertaking. There are tons of reasons to pick up this beautiful language—including travel opportunities and becoming one of the millions of Spanish speakers across the globe.
While the upside-down question mark is different from the standard English, there’s no reason to be intimidated by it.
And now that you understand all the hows and whys of using it, there are no mysterious Spanish punctuation marks to hold you back!
The rules are so simple that even children learn them without any trouble. To tell the truth, when I was a child I loved writing questions in Spanish—just so I could practice writing that fun upside-down question mark.
Remember, there’s no reason not to love this quirky punctuation point!
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