Question marks, exclamation marks, commas, periods, and semicolons are all examples of punctuation marks. We use these marks to add emotion and meaning to written words because we cannot see or hear the speaker. Generally, all languages with a writing system use punctuation marks, but they are not universal and actually quite unique to each language.
The question mark is upside down in Spanish to indicate that a question is coming in written text. Because the word order of a question in Spanish does not change like in English, questions are enclosed between an upside-down question mark at the beginning of the question and a regular question mark at the end.
This article will look at the upside-down world of punctuation in Spanish in more detail so that you can use it with confidence in your Spanish writing, not feel overwhelmed when you run into it in your reading, and also learn how to type this odd mark that does not appear on your keyboard.
Why Does the Spanish Language Use Upside-Down Question Marks?
When we speak, our words are enhanced with the rise and fall of our voices — intonation, stress, and pitch — our facial expressions, breathing, body language, and the speed at which we talk.
In writing, the only way to add all these extra nuances is with punctuation marks.
This does not mean that all languages have a set of punctuation marks that they use, but those languages that use punctuation marks consistently use them with rules in place, just like with grammar and spelling.
Why is there an upside-down question mark in Spanish? There are three basic reasons for the inverted question mark in Spanish.
1: To Indicate a Question
Whether it is English, Spanish, or French, the question mark is there to indicate a question. But Spanish questions need a bit more help to identify as questions because of how they order their words in a question.
Let’s look at English questions first and how they are different from statements to understand this fundamental difference. We are going to be looking at yes or no questions specifically.
The first thing to understand is that English uses auxiliary verbs to formulate all questions.
Auxiliary verbs are “helping” verbs and include the verbs “to be,” “to have,” “to do,” as well as the list of modal verbs — will, can, should, could, would, shall, may, might, ought, etc. Without these words, you cannot formulate a grammatically correct question (source).
You can see the auxiliary verbs in each of the questions in the right-hand column in the table below. Even when there is no auxiliary verb in the statement, there will be one in the question.
You will also note that the word order of a statement and a question are different:
|English Statements||English Questions|
|Subject + (Auxiliary Verb) Verb||Auxiliary Verb + Subject + (Verb)|
Question Word + Auxiliary Verb + Subject + (Verb)
Have a look at the examples below:
|English Statements||English Questions|
|I am hungry.||Are you hungry?|
|He runs every day.||Does he run every day?|
|She did not do the work.||Did she do the work?|
|Mom will help you tomorrow.||Mom, will you help me?|
|English Statements||English Questions|
|The keys are on the table.||Where are the keys?|
|She will be there at eight.||When will she be here?|
|They are baking a cake.||What are they doing?|
|We just do not enjoy cycling.||Why don’t you want to go?|
|He really likes the red one.||Which one does he like?|
|They had to work very hard.||How did they do it?|
Therefore, in English, you can immediately see that a phrase is a question because it will either start with an auxiliary verb or a question word. This is not the case in Spanish because the Spanish word order for statements and yes or no questions are exactly the same.
The word order does not change, and that is why questions are indicated by opening a sentence with an upside-down question mark — for readers to distinguish between questions and statements from the start.
Let’s look at a few examples — please note that these examples are translated from the above English examples:
|Spanish Statements||Spanish Questions|
|Estoy hambriento.||¿Estoy hambriento?|
|Él corre todos los días.||¿Él corre todos los días?|
|Ella no hizo el trabajo.||¿Ella no hizo el trabajo?|
|Mamá te ayudará mañana.||Mamá ¿me ayudarás?|
As you can see, the word order stays the same for questions. Without question marks to indicate that it is a question, you would have no idea that these were questions if you came across them in a book or online!
2: To Replace a Question Word
The next reason for the inverted question mark in Spanish is actually to replace the question word.
Even though the word order in open-ended Spanish questions does change like in English, Spanish speakers sometimes leave out the question words and only use the subject the question is about.
Below are examples of the Spanish question with question words. Remember that the subject is not important in Spanish because the verb changes according to the subject.
The examples below have been translated from the English examples above.
|Spanish Statements||Spanish Questions|
|Las llaves están sobre la mesa.||¿Dónde están las llaves?|
|Simplemente nosotros no disfrutamos del ciclismo.||¿Por qué no quieres ir?|
|Le gusta mucho el rojo.||¿Cual le gusta?|
|Ellos tuvieron que trabajar muy duro.||¿Cómo lo hicieron?|
The question words can be left out in the examples above because the question word is implied and usually understood. This is why question words are often left out when speaking informally. This is what these questions would look like:
|Omitted Question Word||English Translation||Implied Question|
|¿Las llaves?||The keys?||Where are they?|
|¿No quieres ir?||You don’t want to go?||But why?|
|¿Le gusta?||He likes?||Which one?|
|¿Lo hicieron?||They did it?||How?|
3: To Signal the Need to Raise Intonation
As you can see, an inverted question mark at the beginning of a clause in Spanish is quite useful to show readers that a question is coming. This is especially helpful when reading out loud because we use a different intonation for questions and statements.
In both English and Spanish, our voices fall at the end of a statement. Questions are different because one’s voice does something else in Spanish.
When we ask a question in Spanish that asks for a yes or no answer, those questions that look exactly like statements, our voices rise at the end — the exact opposite of a statement.
When you read Spanish and see the inverted question mark, you will immediately know to change your voice so that the phrase sounds like a question, considering that it won’t always look like a question.
Other Spanish Punctuation Differences
Interestingly, there are a few other radical differences in Spanish punctuation use compared to English.
The first is that the language also uses an inverted exclamation mark to indicate the start of exclamation phrases and clauses.
The reason for this is to create consistency with the upside-down question mark and to help readers see exclamatory expressions easily in a body of text.
Another punctuation mark used uniquely in Spanish is the acute accent mark. This symbol is used to indicate syllable stress and to separate homonyms from each other.
French, Spanish’s sister language, only uses the acute accent mark on the letter ‘e, but in Spanish, you can use them on any of the five vowels.
A Little Bit of History
English and Spanish are both Indo-European languages, and even though they do not necessarily belong to the same language family, they are still closely related.
English is a West-Germanic language, with a great deal of influence from the Romance language family, all born from Latin, including Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese.
Significant French influence on the English language began following the Norman invasion of England in 1066 from Normandy, France.
Latin also remained the common language of the educated throughout Europe, explaining the similarities between English and the languages of the Romance Language Family.
This includes how these languages use punctuation marks, which were developed in the Middle Ages.
Many of the marks we use in English are similar to that of our Romance cousins today, including the colon, the comma, the period, the apostrophe, and inverted commas, to name a few.
There are definite discrepancies between how the writers of these different languages use the punctuation marks, but the marks are mostly the same.
The exception is the Spanish language, which is the only language that uses upside-down punctuation marks, and some languages that it has cultural ties with.
What Is an Upside-Down Question Mark Called?
In written English and many other languages, we indicate questions with a question mark at the end of the question. The question mark almost looks like a hook with a period underneath it, indicating to the reader that they are reading a question.
In Spanish, there is an added punctuation mark when it comes to questions, though. The question actually starts with a question mark that is upside down. This upside-down question mark is also called an inverted question mark.
Real Academia Española, or the Royal Spanish Academy, originally recommended using inverted marks in 1754, and Spanish language users gradually adopted this punctuation mark over the next century (source).
Spanish, and some languages that have cultural ties with it, are the only languages that use these inverted punctuation marks to start sentences or clauses.
A few scholars and writers that have appeared over the years have tried to use the inverted question and exclamation mark to indicate irony, sarcasm, or snark.
When we are not aware of irony or sarcasm, it is difficult to read it in words without any other indications. This is exactly the dilemma that writers and poets have been facing as far back as Ancient Greece.
This trend did not catch on, of course. Today, we have emoticons to add to our writing when we fail to clearly express our emotions with words and punctuation (source).
How Do I Type an Upside-Down Question Mark?
Once you understand why the Spanish use an inverted question mark, the next step is to learn how to type it on the various devices that we use in our everyday lives.
It is true that the use of inverted punctuation is slowly falling away, especially in informal language use, but for formal sectors, you still need to know how to type it.
Spanish Typing Tool
There are different ways to type the upside-down question mark. The first one is a free site that you can visit to create the symbol so you can copy and paste it into your document.
You will find all the punctuation marks for Spanish here, including the acute accent, the inverted exclamation, and the upside-down question mark to start with.
Using a PC or a Mac
On both of these devices, you can insert special characters in your word processing program by selecting punctuation from the menu of special characters and selecting the inverted question mark.
You can also use shortcut keys for this mark. Make a list of the punctuation marks that you use often and keep it somewhere you can see it easily:
- Microsoft Windows: Press Alt + 0191
- Microsoft Word: Press Ctrl + Alt and hold while pressing Shift + ?
- MacOS platform: Press Shift + Option + ?
Apple and Android Mobile Devices
On an Apple device, you can bring up an upside-down question mark by accessing the traditional question mark. Simply hold down on the question mark, and a bubble with the upside-down version will pop up to select and insert into your text (source).
It’s a little more complicated with an Android device, requiring an update to your system settings.
From the menu, select “Language and Input.” Next, select English and Spanish as your language and make your default keyboard “Gboard” to enable multilingual typing.
You can then select both upside-down question marks and exclamation points from the phone or tablet keyboard.
The upside-down question mark in Spanish is useful and definitely has its place in the language’s writing system to indicate that a question is coming for those yes/no questions that look like statements or the short phrases that are implying a question with a question word.
It might seem redundant in the modern world, and it might even be fading away from the language because of texting, voice notes, and the face of communication changing completely.
But, it is unique to the language, something that everyone knows and expects from Spanish.