Why Spanish has question and exclamation marks at the start of sentences

Spanish is the only language in the world which puts an ‘upside down’ exclamation mark (¡) or question mark (¿) at the start of a sentence. ¿Por qué? (why?), we ask.

Spanish question and exclamation marks
Why is it that in written Spanish, a question or exclamation mark is added at the start of the sentence as well as at the end? Photo: AZGAN MjESHTRI/Unsplash

Most historians agree that exclamation marks were first used in Latin manuscripts and that the question mark was introduced by the Carolingians, a French dynasty that dominated Western Europe between the 8th and 10th centuries.

In both cases, these symbols used to either emphasise or ask were included only at the end of sentences. 

So why is it that in written Spanish, a question or exclamation mark is added at the start of the sentence as well as at the end?

The first official reference of this linguistic idiosyncrasy was in the second edition of the Spanish Royal Academy’s book of spelling and grammar, published in 1754.

Spanish academics concluded that having a question mark at the end of a sentence wasn’t enough – especially when it came to long sentences –  and that a ¿ should be added at the very start as well.

“There are periods or long clauses in which the question mark placed at the end is not enough and it is necessary from the beginning to indicate the meaning and interrogative tone with which it should be read,” reads the minutes of the meeting held in 1753 about why the “novelty” of a question mark was “convenient” in Spanish.

Initially this rule of adding an inverted question mark was only applicable to long sentences, but over the years linguists realised that it was often difficult to determine when a sentence should be considered short or long, and that people ended up interpreting the rule at will.

So in 1870, Spain’s Royal Academy ruled that initial signos de interrogación should be added to all applicable cases, regardless of the length of sentences.

The exclamation point, which was included in the Spanish grammar books later on in the 18th century, was officially considered to be a two-symbol rule in 1884.

In fact, it was only in 2014 when it officially stopped being referred to as a signo de admiración (admiration point) and became known as signo de exclamación (exclamation point).

Nowadays, Spain’s Royal Academy – known as la RAE – is clear that the correct punctuation in Spanish should always be an exclamation or question mark at the start of a sentence if there is one at the end, and that mimicking what happens in other languages such as English where it only goes at the end is incorrect.

That applies regardless of whether the question or exclamation stands on its own – ¡Adiós! (Bye!) or ¿Cómo te llamas? (What’s your name?), or they’re a period within a sentence, such as Me acabo de despertar, ¿qué hora es? (I’ve just woken up, what time is it?).

Could it be that the often flowery and long-winded nature of written Spanish contributed to this orthographic uniqueness? We certainly think so!

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Spanish Word of the Day: ¡Zasca!

Here's a word which is used in Spanish to silence someone who’s done or said something wrong. 

Spanish Word of the Day: ¡Zasca!

Zasca is a word which is used to imitate the sound of a quick movement or bang, usually in the form of a punch or slap.

So although it is up to interpretation whether it mimics the sound of a blow, it works kind of like an onomatopoeia. 

The closest English equivalents are ‘Pow!’, ‘Bang!’ or ‘Boom!’. It can also sometimes be shortened to just zas.

You don’t usually use zasca as a noun in Spanish in the sense of saying ‘I heard a loud bang’.

It’s rather used as an interjection, when describing a situation, for example ‘Se dió la vuelta y …¡Zasca! Le pegó en toda la boca. (He turned round and…Pow! She punched him right in the mouth).

However, in more recent times zasca has come to be used as a ‘verbal punch’, a quick, sharp and clinical response to a comment or criticism. 

It’s what in English is often called a clapback or comeback, a bit like saying ‘Boom!’ or ‘Take that!’. 

There’a popular meme circulating the Spanish internet featuring an old-timey comic Batman slapping Robin, with the word zasca replacing what in English would often be ‘pow’, and then an accompanying comment that explains what the slap is for.

Zasca started being uttered as such in social media and forums, but it’s usage is so common now that you’ll see it used very often in Spanish newspapers and websites, with headlines such as ‘the best zascas on Spanish TV this year’ or ‘flurry of zascas for Spain’s PSOE party”.

Spanish language group FundéuRAE, a branch of Royal Spanish Academy, has therefore recognised its new usage as a noun in modern Spanish to describe this verbal comeback.

So the next time you want to highlight that someone just got ‘their arse handed to them’ with an effective comeback, remember that ¡Zasca! hits hard.


Parecía que el ladrón se iba a escapar pero de repente – ¡Zasca! – El policía le metió un porrazo.

It looked like the thief was going to get away but all of a sudden ¡Whack! The police officer hit him with his truncheon.

¡Zasca! ¿A qué duele cuando se demuestra que te equivocas?

Take that! It hurts when you’re proven wrong, doesn’t it?

Santiago Abascal se ha llevado un zasca de la hostia cuando desmontaron sus bulos sobre la inmigración.

Santiago Abascal was shot down in flames when his lies about immigration were dismantled.