Spanish Language Punctuation

Punctuation is a central part of written language. It helps you organize your thoughts on paper, and makes reading much easier.

Knowing how to use punctuation is crucial to communicate well in writing, but it doesn't work the same in every language. Let's take a look at the most common punctuation marks in Spanish and how they compare to English ones.

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El Punto

El punto (known as a period or full stop in English) is one mark you can't do without if you want your text to make any sense.

Periods mark the end of phrases or sentences (when they are not a question or an exclamation), paragraphs, or even whole units of text, like an article or a chapter in a book Depending on which of these jobs they do, Spanish puntos have three names:

  • Punto y seguido: when they separate two consecutive sentences:
    • La puntuación es importante. El punto es un signo de puntuación.
      Punctuation is important. Periods are punctuation marks.
  • Punto y aparte: when they mark the end of a paragraph preceding another paragraph. In most texts, each individual paragraph should represent a different idea.
  • Punto final: when they mark the end of a whole unit of text or a chapter in a book.

The first word in every sentence following a punto should be capitalized.

Puntos are also be used in abbreviations, like Sr. (Mr.), pag. (page), and Dr.; or acronyms, like EE. UU. (U.S.), U.R.R.S. (U.S.S.R.), or O.E.A. (OAS, Organization of American States). Nowadays, the use of puntos in acronyms has become optional.

La coma

Comas (commas) are one of the most common punctuation marks. Here are some of the most common uses for commas in Spanish:

  • To separate items in a list:
    • Me gusta escuchar música, cocinar y salir con amigos.
      I like listening to music, cooking and going out with friends.

It is usually preferred not to use commas before conjunctions like y (and) or o (or) in Spanish. So, the Oxford comma usage many are familiar with in English is not widely used in Spanish.

  • To separate a clause:
    • Mi primo, que es químico, vive en España.
      My cousin, who is a chemist, lives in Spain.
    • Napoleón, como muchos saben, nació en Francia.
      Napoleon, as many know, was born in France.
  • To separate interjections from the rest of a sentence:
    • ¡Oye, no corras!
      Hey, don't run!
  • To separate expressions that modify an entire sentence, or that act as adverbs:
    • Técnicamente, el partido no fue nada bueno.
      Technically, the match wasn't very good.

Unlike in English, commas are not traditionally used to separate the thousands in a number. This is done with either a space or a period. Commas, on the other hand, are used to separate decimal points:

  • Una milla equivale a 1,6 kilómetros.
    There are 1.6 kilometers in a mile.
  • Islandia tiene una población de unos 330 000 habitantes.
    or
    Islandia tiene una población de unos 330.000 habitantes.
    Iceland has a population of about 330,000 people.

Los Signos De Interrogación Y Exclamación

Just like in English, los signos de interrogación (question marks) are used to indicate questions and los signos de exclamación (exclamation points) mark exclamations or interjections.

However, there is one aspect of these punctuation marks that is unmistakably characteristic of Spanish: "upside down" question marks and exclamation points. These are used to start interrogative sentences and exclamations, like so:

  • Guatemala está en Centroamérica, ¿verdad?
    Guatemala is in Central America, right?
  • ¿Cómo está el tiempo?
    What's the weather like?
  • ¡Está muy frío!
    It is really cold!
  • ¡No! Me olvidé de la bufanda.
    Oh, no! I forgot my scarf.
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Las comillas

Comillas is the Spanish name for quotation marks. Their use, in general, is not much different from the use of quotation marks in English. It is worth noting that periods, commas, colons and semicolons are always written outside of quotation marks in Spanish.

That said, there is one thing about Spanish quotation marks that might be quite surprising for English speakers: they don't always look the same.

There are three types of quotation marks in Spanish:

  • ' ': comillas simples (simple quotation marks).
  • " ": comillas inglesas (English quotation marks).
  • « »: comillas latinas o españolas (Latin or Spanish quotation marks).

In printed texts especially, the use of Spanish quotation marks is preferred. However, influence from other languages, like English, has expanded the used of double quotation marks in other contexts.

Also, when quotations are nestled, all three marks can be used in the following order: « " ' ' " ». Let's see this in an example:

  • «Laura me dijo "Diego gritó '¡alto!'"», declaró el testigo.
    «Laura told me "Diego yelled 'stop!'"», said the witness.

Los Paréntesis

Just like quotation marks, los paréntesis (parentheses) work very similarly to their English counterparts. The only tricky thing about them might be how they interact with other punctuation marks.

Luckily, they work in exactly the same way as quotation marks: periods, commas, colons and semi colons are always written outside of parentheses, while other marks might be written inside.

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Los Dos Puntos

Los dos puntos (colon) in Spanish have many uses, many of which coincide to the uses of the colon in English. There are a couple of things, though, that English speakers should be aware of when using this mark:

  • Contrary to what some popular English style-guides indicate, in Spanish it is generally agreed that phrases following a colon are not capitalized:
    • Solo debes saber una cosa sobre Pedro: es mi amigo.
      You only need to know one thing about Pedro: He's my friend.
  • The previous rule does have some exceptions, for example, when the phrase following the colon is a quote:
    • Cuando lo vio, dijo: «¡Es hermoso!».
      When he saw it, he said: "It's beautiful!".
  • Phrases at the start of letters, like "Dear John" are followed by a colon, and not a comma like in English:
    • Querido amigo:
      ¿Cómo estás?
      Dear friend,
      How are you?

You might feel tempted to leave punctuation for later in your Spanish-learning journey, but don't underestimate it! Proper punctuation will make your written Spanish clearer and it will help you make the right first impression.