Transparent Language Blog

¿What’s the story with ¿ and ¡ ? Posted by on Jan 30, 2017 in Archived Posts

¿Did you know the inverted question mark and exclamation point were originally suggested for use in English? ¡It’s true!

Itchy Feet: ¿Confused Face?

Apparently, sadly, the upside-down question mark and exclamation point are slowly dying in the Spanish language. According to one commenter on the comic above, this is because when you use text-to-speech on smartphones it doesn’t recognize questions or exclamations. This doesn’t surprise me, and although I rarely use that function, I don’t expect the device to read my subtle inflections for punctuation. It makes sense that I’d have to add the punctuation in the sentence myself. In most languages this isn’t such a big deal because you simply say your sentence, then when you’re finished you add your ! or ? or . But in Spanish, you’ve technically got to add the ¡ and ¿ at the beginning of the sentence, then speak what you want to say, then add another at the end. We smartphone users are too lazy for that. That’s why the phones are smart – so we don’t have to be.

Thus, the ¡ and ¿ are slowly moving into disuse. After all, they don’t actually add much to the sentence, do they? The exclamation point and question mark already denote what they’re supposed to. Why would you need ones at the beginning of the sentence, too?

Well, back in 1668, it was suggested by several authors, poets and literary luminaries of the day that ¡ and ¿ be used in the English language as a way of denoting irony in a sentence. It didn’t catch on, unfortunately, and now in 2017 have that problem in spades. Have you ever noticed that it’s nearly impossible on the internet to know if someone’s being sarcastic or completely serious? This is such a common phenomenon that it has a name: Poe’s Law. If you don’t add a smiley to the end of a sentence, it’s impossible to communicate that you’re not being serious. Idiots 🙂

Now that ¡ and ¿ are fading from Spanish, perhaps we can reclaim them as universal symbols of sarcasm! Barring that, there’s always the two of them combined, which I just learned about: ⸘ That’s a combination ¡ and ¿ that was originally meant to denote an intensely-asked question. LIKE THIS?! Yes, like that. Somehow it never caught on, either.

So although we may watch the upside-down exclamation points and question marks fade into obscurity, perhaps one day we’ll see them find a new purpose.

Keep learning a language with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Christian:

    I’m a native Spanish speaker and I have always wanted to know if there’s another language that uses both symbols. Do you know?

    Regarding the use, I must admit that my English crept its way into my mother tongue and I find it a pain to write both of them, specially over Whatspp or social media. If I had the time to properly write or in formal settings I always use them…

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Christian I don’t think there is another language that uses them…weirdly enough.

    • skan:

      @Christian Many languages use “¿” or other kind of symbol to show the start of a question:
      Spanish, Arabic, Waray, Asturiano, Old Gallego, Greek, Church Slavonic… and it’s acceptable in Catalan and Gallego

  2. John Pilge:

    If a language has ties to Spanish, they do use the inverted marks. Galician is the only one that I know still uses the marks. Nowadays, it is discouraged.

  3. Stewart Chantrey:

    Love your brief bio and we love the cat’s name ‘itchy feet’

  4. Francisco Martínez:

    First, I don’t think it’s true to say that ¡ and ¿ are “moving into disuse”. They’re just not being used (and it’s now accepted by the Academy) when writing short electronic messages in phones or the like, but they’re still compulsory when writing say, “normal” texts.
    The reason why ¿ is necessary in Spanish is the same reason why in English you have to invert the order of certain words when asking something. Actually, if you think of it, the ? is more unnecessary in English than the ¿ is in Spanish, because as soon as you read a sentence beginning with “do”, “does”, “will”, etc., you know right away that a question is coming. In Spanish, in many cases, the only difference between a statement and a question is the question marks at both ends, as we don’t need to change to word order to express that. The exact same words can be used for both types of sentences, as in “Sabes que llego el domingo (You know I arrive on Sunday)” and “¿Sabes que llego el domingo? (Do you know I’ll arrive on Sunday?).”
    This reminds me of some Spanish persons who find repeating personal pronouns in English again and again a nuisance, to say the least. Well, it’s just their way to state that it is I and not they that “arrive” on Sunday. We use verb desinences instead, “llego” and “llegan”, respectively.
    Unless we find a different way of “marking” questions and exclamations right from the start of the sentence, those signs will still be useful (and necessary) in Spanish, regarldess of our growing laziness when writing on a phone… 😉

    • Dylan:

      @Francisco Martínez Do not assume that specific words start a question. Will, my son, pointed this out to me. Does and bucks may disagree, however.

  5. IsabelG:

    The problem with adding ¿ or ¡ at the beginning of a sentence was very well solved in Windows Phone, where those inverted symbols had been added to the extended list accessed directly by pressing the dot, when typing in Spanish. Easy peasy. In Android, they are banned to the second or third screen of special symbols -most cumbersome. Also, good dictating software for Spanish usually accepts “abrir interrogación” and “abrir exclamación” or something similar as special commands.

  6. J. Ray V.:

    Just a regular guy putting in my two cents.

    English is a much more technically descriptive language concerning objects, things, procedures. Both in written and spoken.

    However, Spanish conveys emotions better than English but particularly in written form. As a quick example, if you are reading a story for the first time and you come across, “I would really love to throw that damned bully into the ocean!”, you would not know if the writer intended the strong emotional aspect to be the entire sentence or just the last word. In Spanish if the writer put the upside down exclamation point at the beginning of the sentence well now you know that strong emotion is there from the beginning of the sentence.

Leave a comment: