Punctuation In Spanish Writing Essays

Spanish Punctuation and Capitalization

by Steve Fortna

Spanish Punctuation

Using punctuation in Spanish is mostly same as English with a few significant differences. Moving from most common to least common:

Periods

Called a punto or a punto final in Spanish, the period is the easiest punctuation mark. When you finish a sentence, add a period:

Juan Carlos es mi mejor amigo.
Juan Carlos is my best friend.

Commas

Note: While there is some debate in English as to whether you should include a comma before "and" or "or" in a list, you should not do it in Spanish.

The comma, coma, is used the same way in Spanish as it is in English. Some common situations where you should use a comma are lists, clauses, and parenthetical phrases. For example:

Necesito naranjas, leche, pan y huevos.
I need oranges, milk, bread and eggs.

Si estudiara japonés, viajaría a Japón.
If I studied Japanese, I would travel to Japan.

El senador, un hombre respetado, fue elegido por un amplio margen.
The senator, a respected man, was elected by a wide margin.

Exceptions

In many Spanish-speaking countries, periods and commas are used in the exact opposite way as they are in English when writing numbers:

3.000 personas murieron.
3,000 people died.

Recibió un 90,5 en el examen.
She received a 90.5 on the exam.

Note: In the case of the last example the number would be read "noventa punto cinco."

Question Marks

The Spanish question mark, signo de interrogación, is pretty conspicuous. Like English, every question ends with a question mark, but in Spanish questions begin with a question mark as well. An upside-down one that is:

¿Quién es el rey de España?
Who is the king of Spain?

Note: Technically the initial question mark isn't upside-down, but rather rotated 180 degrees.

Before you complain about the difference, think about how much easier it is to read a sentence out loud when you know ahead of time whether it's a question or not.

Exclamation Points

The exclamation point, signo de exclamación, works just like the question mark. An upside-down exclamation point starts the sentence and a right-side-up one ends it:

¡Qué viva el rey de España!
Long live the king of Spain!

Again, it's much easier to read an exclamatory sentence in Spanish because you know from the outset that you need to change the inflection in your voice.

Exceptions

The initial upside-down question mark or exclamation point may actually come in the middle of the sentence if the first part of the sentence isn't a part of the question or exclamation:

Héctor, ¿me pasas el azúcar?
Héctor, would you pass me the sugar?

Entré en el concurso y… ¡yo gané el premio!
I entered the contest and… I won the prize!

In sentences where there is both a question and an exclamation, you may even mix and match the punctuation:

Mariana, ¿dónde estuviste ayer!
Mariana, where were you yesterday!?

Quotation Marks

There are many ways to indicate that someone is talking in Spanish. The characters used depend mainly on which region you're in. In some places you may see the double quotation marks (comillas) you're used to:

"Quiero ir a la playa", dijo Julio.
"I want to go to the beach," said Julio.

However, you're much more likely to see angular quotes (comillas angulares) in Spanish writing:

«Quiero ir a la playa», dijo Julio.

Note: When rayas are used for spoken words, double quotes are used to indicate thought: —Hola Julio—dijo Antonio. "¿Porque está aquí?" pensó Elena.

And you may also see a simple dash (raya) used to indicate spoken dialogue:

—Quiero ir a la playa—dijo Julio.

To quote a book or movie, you may use either character:

Yo quiero ver "Hombre de Hierro". / Yo quiero ver «Hombre de Hierro».
I want to see "Ironman."

Note: It's possible to use three different quotation marks in the same sentence: «Él dijo, "Ella me llama 'chico tonto' mucho"», dijo Antonio.

To place a quote within a quote, start with angular quotes and then switch to double quotes:

«Elena me llama "chico tonto" mucho», dijo Julio.
"Elena calls me 'dumb kid' a lot," said Julio.

Notice that commas and periods fall outside of quotations in Spanish where they typically come inside the quotes in English.

Note: Angular quotes are special characters that are not found on the typical keyboard. Typing the less than sign (<) or greater than sign (>) twice is not equivalent.

Other Symbols

Though they are less common, the colon (dos puntos), the semicolon (punto y coma), the hyphen (guión), parenthesis (paréntesis), and the ellipsis (puntos suspensivos) are mainly used the same way in Spanish as they are in English:

Él tiene tres amigos: Rafael, Carlos, y Ana María.
He has three friends: Rafael, Carlos, and Ana María.

No salí; quería mirar más.
I didn't leave; I wanted to watch more.

Los problemas son socio-económicos.
The problems are socio-economic.

Adolfo (el heroe) regresa para salvarla.
Adolfo (the hero) returns to save her.

Pero pensaba que…
But I thought that…

Spanish Capitalization

Spanish uses capital letters far less often than English. Let's start with the situations you're familiar with:

Do Use Capital Letters…

…when starting a sentence:

Me gusta helado. Mi tío también.
I like ice cream. My uncle too.

…with proper nouns:

Note: With proper nouns, only the name itself is capitalized, not descriptive words: Quiero subir el monte Everest.

Voy a conducir a Canadá con Sara en su Mazda.
I'm going to drive to Canada with Sara in her Mazda.

…with abbreviated personal titles:

El Sr. Montero conoce a la Dra. Rodríguez.
Mr. Montero knows Dr. Rodríguez.

But there are many situations where a word that would be capitalized in English is not in Spanish.

Don't Use Capital Letters…

…with days and months:

Hoy es viernes, el 22 de mayo.
Today is Friday, May 22.

…with religions:

Note:El Islam is often capitalized in Spanish.

Él es cristiano pero estudia el budismo.
He is Christian but he studies Buddhism.

…with nationalities:

Soy estadounidense y Sara es canadiense.
I'm American and Sara is Canadian.

…with languages:

Pueden hablar inglés y francés.
They can speak English and French.

…with yo:

Ella dijo que yo lo hice.
She said that I did it.

…with personal titles:

El señor Montero conoce a la doctora Rodríguez.
Mister Montero knows Doctor Rodríguez.

Titles of Books, Movies, Etc.

When writing out the titles of books and movies capitalize only the first word (and any proper nouns):

Cien años de soledad
One Hundred Years of Solitude

Lo que el viento se llevó
Gone with the Wind

Note: Book covers and movie posters will not necessarily follow this rule.

Punctuating Dialogue

Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write, and I wish that my job as a technical writer offered more (or any) opportunities for writing it. In prose, dialogue can be a great way to get inside your characters. However, some writers find punctuating dialogue confusing: How do I use quotation marks? What is a dialogue tag? Where do the commas go? How come I see writers who don't even use quotation marks? Wait, is that an em dash?!

This article will both cover the basic ways to punctuate dialoge in American English and explore some of the less traditional methods. We will also talk about each method affects tone in your story. We will focus on dialogue in prose writing that is being spoken by characters in the story.

Let’s Start with the Basics

Dialogue or direct discourse is usually enclosed in quotation marks, either single like these: ‘__’, or double, like these: “__”. In American English, you are most likely to see the double quotation marks used to indicate a character or person speaking who is not the narrator.

Dialogue usually uses dialogue tags such as “she said,” “he screamed,” “they murmured,” etc. Dialogue tags are a subject and a verb that indicate who is speaking and the method of the speech (spoken/yelled/whispered). In most cases (unless a dialogue tag that indicates thought is used), material inside the quotation marks is considered spoken material.

I think the best way to explain it is to start with some examples of the different ways dialogue tags can be used.

Here is how to punctuate a sentence that starts with the dialogue tag:

     Mary said, “Call me tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • Comma before the opening quotation mark.
  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the opening quotation mark.
  • A period to end the quoted sentence.
  • Closing quotation mark.

What happens when the dialogue tag is placed at the end of the sentence?

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said.

Notes:  

  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the opening quotation mark.
  • A comma to end the quoted sentence before the closing quotation mark that precedes the dialogue tag.
  • Dialogue tag at the end with a period to end the sentence.

Now see what happens when the dialogue tag is placed in the middle:

     “Call me,” Mary said, “tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the opening quotation mark.
  • A comma to end the quoted sentence before the closing quotation mark that precedes the dialogue tag.
  • Comma before the second opening quotation mark.
  • Lower case letter to indicate the second piece of the quotation is still a part of the sentence that began in the first piece of the quotation.
  • A period to end the quoted sentence.
  • Closing quotation mark.

Now see what happens when the dialogue tag separates two sentences of quoted speech:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said. “Have a nice evening.”

Notes:  

  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the first opening quotation mark.
  • A comma to end the quoted sentence before the closing quotation mark that precedes the dialogue tag.
  • A period at the end of the sentence (and after the dialogue tag) to indicate that the sentence with the first piece of quoted material has ended.
  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the second opening quotation mark.
  • The second piece of quoted material appearing on the same line as the first to indicate that the same person/speaker said both pieces of quoted material, even though the second piece of quoted material does not have a dialogue tag.
  • A period to end the quoted sentence.
  • Closing quotation mark.

This is what happens if there is more than one sentence inside the quotations:

     “Call me tomorrow. Have a nice evening,” Mary said.

Notes:  

  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the opening quotation mark.
  • A period to end the first quoted sentence.
  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of the second sentence inside the quotation marks.
  • A comma to end the second quoted sentence before the closing quotation mark and before the dialogue tag.
  • A period at the end of the sentence (and after the dialogue tag) to indicate that the sentence that contains both sentences of quoted material has ended.

And…all of the above remains true even if you reverse the order of the dialogue tag from Mary said  to said Mary.

     Said Mary, “Call me tomorrow.”

     “Call me tomorrow,” said Mary.

     “Call me,” said Mary, “tomorrow.”

     “Call me tomorrow,” said Mary. “Have a nice evening.”

     “Call me tomorrow. Have a nice evening,” said Mary.

Let’s see what happens when we have multiple speakers:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said. “Have a nice evening.”

     “Okay,” said Frank. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • All the rules listed above are followed, plus
  • The quoted material of the second speaker starts on a new line as a new paragraph.

Next, let’s take away the dialogue tags:

     “Call me tomorrow. Have a nice evening.”

      “Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • All the material inside the quotations is punctuated and capitalized like a normal sentence, but
  • The opening quotations appear before the first sentence and closing quotations after the last sentence.
  • The quoted material of the second speaker still starts on a new line as a new paragraph.

 Also, new lines of dialogue are indented like any new paragraph. Let’s see how that looks by peppering in some longer lines of prose so that you can see the effect:

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party, but she didn’t have time just now.

     “Call me tomorrow,” said Mary as she got into her car.

     “Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”            

Notes:  

  • All rules are followed as noted above,
  • And each piece of quoted material starts as a new paragraph, indented and on a new line.

However, you don’t have to  start Mary’s speech on a new line if you write her dialogue tag into a sentence in the first paragraph. Observe:

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party, but she didn’t have time just now. As she got into her car, Mary said, “Call me tomorrow.”

     “Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • As Mary speaks first, her quoted material does not have to start in a new paragraph, especially because her speech is relevant to the topic of the paragraph. Her dialogue tag is written into the description of the scene, so it’s entirely appropriate to write her dialogue into the first paragraph.
  • Frank’s dialogue, however, must start on a new line, indented as a new paragraph. You can also continue the new paragraph with more description. For example:

     “Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” replied Frank as he bent to start the rusty mower.

Let’s Complicate Things

There are endless combinations that are now possible using the rules above. These combinations can change the tone and feel of the story. Once again, I turn to Noah Lukeman’s excellent book A Dash of Style for clues on how to manipulate quotations and other punctuation to elicit different moods when writing dialogue.

You can use dialogue to speed up the pace of your story:

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party, but she didn’t have time just now. As she got into her car, Mary said, “Call me tomorrow.”

     “Wait!” Frank jogged over.

     “I have to get going, Frank. We can chat tomorrow.”

     “Well, I just wanted to ask you if we should get veggie burgers, too. I think we should have some options for the non-carnivores.” 

     “Of course. Sounds good. I have to run, but we can go over it all tomorrow on the phone.”            

     “Oh, and should we get gluten-free buns, too?”               

     “Uh, sure…Let’s talk tomorrow. Ok?”               

     “Ok. Later then.”               

     “Later.”             

Notes:  

  • With few dialogue tags, the back and forth clip of Frank and Mary’s conversation speeds up the text from the long descriptive section to a quick exchange between the two characters that does as much to show their personalities as long lines of descriptive prose would have.
  • Dialogue tags get the section started, but as the dialogue gets going, the tags are no longer needed as the words of the characters allow the reader to infer the characters tone and mood easily without the wordiness of Mary said/Frank said.
  • The fact that a new paragraph is used for each line of dialogue draws the reader down the page at a rapid pace thus propelling the reader forward through the story. One would not want to read an entire story like this, but it can be a tool for speeding up long sections of prose.

You can use manipulate the dialogue tags to indicate subtle passages of time:

     “Call me tomorrow,” said Mary.

Versus

     “Call me,” Mary said. “Tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • In the first example Mary clearly expresses when she would like to be called.
  • In the second example, putting the dialogue tag in the middle and punctuating each quoted piece as separate sentences indicates a slight pause between Mary’s directing Frank to call her and when she would actually like to be called. Mary says to call her, but then adds “Tomorrow” either as an afterthought or in order to emphasize that she does not want Frank to call her today.

You can use dialogue to add a sense of revelation or finality:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said.

versus

      Mary said, “Call me tomorrow.”

versus

     Mary said: “Call me tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • In the first example Mary clearly expresses when she would like to be called in a way that is clear but not climactic.
  • In the second example, putting the dialogue tag at the beginning places extra emphasis on the quoted material as sort of a final point.
  • In the third example, the colon adds an even stronger sense of finality or emphasis on the quoted material. The differences are subtle but palpable.

Now, Let’s Throw the Rules Out

Writers, as you likely know, love to ignore the rules of punctuation and grammar when it suits them. I have read many, MANY books in which dialogue is presented without quotation marks (double or single), properly placed commas, paragraph breaks, or even dialogue tags. And that’s really just fine. Other languages—French, Spanish, Italian, and even British English have different ways of punctuating dialogue that I think many writers using American English emulate to create different effects in the tone. Let’s look at a few other ways of doing it.

How ‘bout an em dash for style?

Italian, French, and Spanish all utilize em dashes in dialogue, though not all in the same way necessarily.

With the dialogue tag, you can start and end with the em dash, or just start with it.

     —Call me tomorrow,—Mary said.

     —Call me tomorrow, Mary said.

     Mary said,—Call me tomorrow.

     Mary said—Call me tomorrow.—

Without dialogue tags, you can start and end with the em dash or just start with it.

     —Call me tomorrow.—

     —Call me tomorrow.

For longer sections of dialogue, em dashes can look nice at the beginning of each piece of speech. Again, using a new indented paragraph at each change of speaker keeps this looking neat and clean. For example:

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party, but she didn’t have time just now. As she got into her car, Mary said,—Call me tomorrow.

     —Wait!—Frank jogged over.

     —I have to get going, Frank. We can chat tomorrow.

     —Well, I just wanted to ask you if we should get veggie burgers, too. I think we should have some options for the non-carnivores.

     —Of course. Sounds good. I have to run, but we can go over it all tomorrow on the phone.

     —Oh, and should we get gluten-free buns, too?

     —Uh, sure…Let’s talk tomorrow. Ok?

     —Ok. Later then.

     —Later.

You can choose to indent each time the speaker changes, or not. In the example above, I only used a closing em dash if the quoted material was followed by a dialogue tag, otherwise, I only used em dashes at the beginning of the spoken sections. I think this method has a nice clean look to it, and when reading the dialogue, the em dash creates a smooth transition between the prose parts and the dialogue parts while still creating separation.

You can also try using italics to denote both speech and thoughts:

You can try using italics for all spoken dialogue. In my opinion, I typically use italics for material that is thought (but not spoken) by the character and regular quotations marks or em dashes for spoken dialogue. However, it’s barely a rule, and so long as you are consistent and your reader can easily discern whether something is being thought or spoken, then you can use italics and/or quotation marks for both or either all in the same piece. Just be sure to use dialogue tags if there is a possibility your reader might not be able to tell what is thought and what it spoken by the character. Note that the material that Mary thinks is set off with a comma each time to create visual separation. Here’s a few examples:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said, Because I’m too tired to listen to you now.

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said and then thought, “Because I’m too tired to listen to you now.”

     Call me tomorrow, Mary said and then thought, Because I’m too tired to listen to you now.

And, you can write thoughts without either the italics or the quotation marks:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said and then thought, because I’m too tired to listen to you now.

And, finally, if you wish to be a total rebel, you can use Free Indirect Discourse:

Our esteemed Jon Gingerich wrote a great piece on the merits of using Free Indirect Discourse in your prose, so I won’t attempt to enumerate all the ways that you can use it—just go read his excellent article. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, indirect discourse paraphrases direct discourse and does not need quotation marks, italics, em dashes or any other such punctuation.

     Mary told Frank to call her tomorrow.

     Okay, he replied. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Note that the quoted material is written more as someone relaying the conversation later to a third party. The effect is that the quoted material may or may not be the person’s exact words. The effect of indirect discourse is that of adding an extra layer of distance between what the person actually said and how it was heard and then later repeated.

Free Indirect Discourse smooshes together spoken dialogue, unvoiced thoughts, and descriptive prose all together so that the effect is something like the reader being both inside the mind of the character but still being able to be objective and see through the lens of the omniscient third person narrator. The speech of another character can appear in the same line as the speech of the primary character and vice versa. According to Jon, “Free Indirect Discourse takes advantage of the biggest asset a first-person P.O.V. has (access) and combines it with the single best benefit of a third-person narrative (reliability).”

Let’s take a look.

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. Oh no, she thought, I don’t have time right now for his ramblings. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party. As she got into her car, Mary said, call me tomorrow.

     But before she could close the door, Frank called, Wait! and jogged over. I have to get going, Frank, she said. We can chat tomorrow. She again attempted to close the car door, but he asked if they should get veggie burgers. For the non-carnivores, he said.

Even though there is a third-person narrator, and Mary is not the speaker, the effect of the free indirect discourse is that we hear her thoughts, her voice, and the voice of Frank through the lens of Mary’s perception.

How do I choose?

With so many options for ways to write dialogue, it can be confusing for a writer to pick one. My advice would be to use the method that best fits the tone of your work. For almost all prose writing, the classic quotation mark methods are appropriate and safe. If you want the dialogue to be clear but not clutter up your page with quotation marks, you might opt for em dashes. And if you want the dialogue to just be a part of the character's experience, try your hand at the free indirect discourse method. If you are consistent and deliberate with your choices, your reader will defer naturally to your authority and just go with it.

Share below if you have other ways to write dialogue. I know there have to be other methods.

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