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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Six celebrities who are fluent in (Castilian) Spanish

David Beckham may have struggled to string a sentence together in Spanish after four years in Madrid, but other famous faces have reached almost native levels in the language after spending time in España or with Spanish people.

Six celebrities who are fluent in (Castilian) Spanish

Freddie Highmore 

British actor Freddie Highmore, who as a child appeared alongside Johnny Depp in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Finding Neverland’, is perhaps the most impressive Spanish speaker on the list. The star of ‘The Good Doctor’ TV series spent a year living in Madrid while he was studying and actually has a Galician grandmother. His Spanish accent, his grammar and spoken sentence construction is practically native.

Ivan Rakitic

There are dozens of foreign footballers playing in La Liga who speak Spanish at an almost native level: Frenchman Antoine Griezzman, Belgian Thibaut Cortois, Slovak Jan Oblak. But perhaps the most incredible of all is Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic, a former Barça player who’s returned to his old club Sevilla. It was in the Andalusian city where Rakitic met his now wife and where he developed a true Sevillian accent, with all the flair and consonant dropping that it’s famed for.

Gwyneth Paltrow

The American actress turned beauty product guru is a fluent Spanish speaker who mostly conjugates her verbs correctly and hardly has any traces of an American accent (she even pronounces c and z in the traditional Castilian way). It all started when as a teenager Paltrow did a year abroad in Talavera de la Reina near Toledo, where she stayed with a Spanish family who she still visits every time she’s in Spain.  

Jean Reno

You may not have known this, but French superstar Jean Reno’s real name is Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jiménez. Reno was born in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, where his parents fled to from their native Cádiz to escape Franco’s regime. The star of ‘Leon: The Professional’ obviously had a big advantage when it came to learning Spanish, but given that he’s lived most of his life in Morocco and France, his fluency in Spanish is commendable, bar his clear French accent.

James Rhodes

Ever since British-born concert pianist James Rhodes moved to Spain in 2017, he’s voiced his love for everything Spanish, including the language. His work spearheading a law to protect children from sexual abuse in Spain earned him the honour of fast-track Spanish citizenship. Rhodes regularly takes to Twitter, tweeting almost entirely in Spanish and demonstrating a thorough understanding of syntax, slang and more. He’s also more than capable of holding his own when speaking castellano

Michael Robinson

The late Michael Robinson, a British footballer who became Spain’s most famous TV football pundit, was and still is the perfect example of how the most important factor when learning a language is to immerse oneself in the culture and make mistakes without fear. Having been forced into early retirement due to injury while playing for Osasuna, he took on his new job without prior experience and with far from perfect Spanish. He improved despite holding onto his British accent, learnt Spanish expressions and jokes and laughed at his blunders. No wonder he was known as Spain’s most loved Brit.