What is with the upside-down question marks and exclamation marks in Spanish?

¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?

In this example, the upside down punctuation marks look kind of fancy but a bit pointless – you have a question mark at the end, just like in plenty of other languages, so why do you need one at the beginning too?

The thing is, many questions in Spanish look just like statements – there is no change in word order like in English:

He is your brother.  Is he your brother?

Es tu hermano.  ¿Es tu hermano?

In the English example, the change in word order makes it clear that it’s a question. In the Spanish example however, apart from the ¿?, the question is exactly the same as the statement. The big difference is in the intonation: when speaking, only the fact that a Spanish-speaker’s voice goes up at the end shows that it’s a question, not a statement. As such, intonation is super-important in getting your meaning across, so the ¡ and ¿ marks at the start of the sentence give you prior warning to do the questioning intonation.

Try saying the following examples out loud and listen to the difference in intonation:

El agua está caliente. The water is hot.

¿El agua está caliente? Is the water hot?

Sí…

Me quemé la mano. I burned my hand.

¡Me quemé la mano! I burned my hand!

Spanish questions with question-words (qué, cómo, cuándo, quién, porqué) also take the ¿? marks, even though the question-word makes it clear that it’s a question, not a statement. 

Possibly because of the influence of other languages, or the abbreviation of language through sms and the internet, many native speakers have started to drop the initial ¡¿ marks in informal writing, especially in emails. However, in any formal situation, or if you want to be clear, use them.

Any questions? Leave a comment and we promise to get back to you! Check out our Spanish Immersion Programs at La Herradura in Spain and Uruguay. The Business Spanish Course specialises in using formal and informal Spanish.

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