English English language Etymology Punctuation Usage Writing

¿Why isn’t English like Spanish?

Q: Why does the question mark and exclamation point appear at the end of a sentence in English? To my mind, it would make more sense if they were at the beginning. Or at the beginning and end, as in Spanish, though I’ve read that this convention is falling out of favour, no doubt under the influence of that mongrel language from perfidious Albion.

A: Your question requires a brief look back at medieval English, where the earliest punctuation marks were intended as verbal cues for one reading to an audience.

In the medieval church, reading was something done aloud, and punctuation showed the lector where to pause for breath and how to modulate his voice to convey the meaning of the words.

The first marks seen in English writing indicated pauses in a sentence: brief pauses in mid-sentence (voiced with a rising intonation), versus a longer, final pause at the end (a falling intonation).

In Beowulf, an Old English poem written as early as 725, the basic mark of punctuation is a simple point, according to A Critical Companion to Beowulf (2003), by Andy Orchard, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

The English marks identifying a sentence as a question or an exclamation developed later, the linguist David Crystal writes in Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (2015).

The interrogative mark, according to Crystal, was recorded in Old English around the year 1000, and the mark of exclamation or admiration appeared in the 1500s in early Modern English. (Versions of both were recorded earlier in medieval Latin.)

The early interrogative and exclamation marks in English were the precursors of our modern question mark and exclamation point, though they looked nothing like today’s versions and didn’t get their modern names until centuries later.

From the beginning, however, they were always found at the end of an English sentence. Yes, they offered vocal cues (if a bit late in the sentence). But like the period, they  showed stopping points—almost as if they were variations on the period.

In fact, during the late 19th and early 20th century, these marks were sometimes called “question stop” and “exclamation stop,” just as today the British call the period a “full stop.”

In his book, Crystal says that “the question mark, like the exclamation mark and the period, acts unambiguously as a sign of separation—to show where one sentence ends and the next begins. That’s why a period was included within the symbol (and reflected in the term question-stop).”

In Spanish, too, the question mark and exclamation point originally came at the end of a sentence, not the beginning.

It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the Spanish Academy suggested adding them, upside down, at the front too, as in ¿Quien sabe? (“Who knows?”).

As the Academy explains in a treatise published in 1754, “one can use the same sign of interrogation, inverting it before the word that has the first interrogative intonation, in addition to using the regular question mark to signal the end of the clause.” The exclamation mark was treated the same way.

Why the change? Because, as you suggest, placing a mark at the beginning is a cue to the reader that a question or exclamation is coming.

To some Spaniards, a solitary mark at the end “was felt to be inadequate for the requirements of Spanish pronunciation,” Alexander and Nicholas Humez write in their book On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World (2008).

“It did not provide a reader with enough information to enable him to express adequately the full significance of a question in long sentences,” they add.

“Following its own prescription,” the Humez brothers write, “the Adademia put this into practice in the books published under its auspices, and other publishers eventually followed suit.”

Interestingly, the 16th-century English educator John Hart suggested in An Orthographie (1569) that the interrogation mark (he called it “the asker”) and the exclamation mark (“the wonderer”) should be used at the beginning and end of a sentence.

And at least one 18th-century commentator made a similar suggestion. In a letter to Noah Webster, dated Dec. 26, 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

“We are sensible that when a question is met with in reading, there is a proper variation to be used in the management of the voice. We have therefore a point called an interrogation, affixed to the question in order to distinguish it. But this is absurdly placed at its end; so that the reader does not discover it, till he finds he has wrongly modulated his voice, and is therefore obliged to begin again the sentence. To prevent this the Spanish printers, more sensibly, place an interrogation at the beginning as well as at the end of a question.” (From The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 1809.)

The practice never took hold in English. And as you’ve noted, some Spanish-language writers (notably the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda) have abandoned such marks. However, we doubt that Neruda, an ardent Communist, was influenced much by perfidious Albion.

Why did the inverted question mark catch on in Spanish but not in English?

Questions in both languages often begin with interrogative function words like Cómo (“How”), Dónde (“Where”), and Quién (“Who”).

But the wording of Spanish statements and questions are often identical: Tienes hambre (“You’re hungry”) versus ¿Tienes hambre? (“Are you hungry?”).

In addition to having interrogative function words, English questions tend to begin with auxiliaries (“Do you like me?”) or have different word order (“Are you tired?”).

Despite the benefits of inverted question marks in Spanish, some people drop them on social media, as in these comments on Twitter: Por qué las personas te decepcionan? (“Why do people let you down?”) and por q te llama a vos y no a mi? (“Why does he call you and not me?”]

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 8, 2022.]

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