¿Why don’t we use the Spanish inverted question mark in English?
Native Spanish speakers and those who have ever studied the language will immediately recognize the inverted Spanish question mark: “¿”. In Spanish, questions are not just ended with a question mark as in English, but are surrounded with them. For example: ¿Cuántos años tienes? means “how old are you?”
This practice is actually quite useful. By using the question marks like inverted commas or parentheses, identifying a question is much easier. But why don’t we do this in English?
The answer is very simple: word order.
The Inverted Question Mark in Spanish vs. in English
In English, we have our own way of disambiguating between statement and question sentences. We change the order of the words or add in auxiliary question words. For example: “You are going to the store.” / “Are you going to the store?” We also mark it with a question mark, and, when spoken, raise the intonation of our voice in the last word (although this is becoming fairly common in statement sentences for certain American accents).
In Spanish, the word order remains the same, and the only clue that the sentence is a question are the inverted question marks in Spanish. So, to use the same examples as above: “Vas a la tienda.” / “¿Vas a la tienda?”
However, since the preceding question mark is really just a flag that a question is coming, unless the question is very long, Spanish is slowly moving towards ditching the “¿” entirely in informal situations. In internet chat rooms, for example, the inverted question mark in Spanish is often omitted since it’s faster and easier for people just to type the final question mark.
This article was originally published on May 13, 2011, and updated on July 12, 2021.