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Let’s not leave Punctuation out in the cold

Anne Silva

After last week’s Scary Grammar Pitfalls of DOOM, I thought we could talk about something a little more benign this week: punctuation. While not exactly grammar, it’s not really “vocabulary” either, and often seems to get left out in the cold, as such metalinguistic topics tend to do. (I see you out there, pronunciation! Mama hasn’t forgotten about you!)

Do you know that I was a grown-up person with some very expensive pieces of paper from various learning institutions, some study- and work-abroad experience, and a real job speaking Spanish every day before I learned that there are different rules for punctuation in English and in Spanish? I mean, besides the whole upside-down, right-side-up doodads. (Those are pretty obvious, although after seeing the horrendously punctuated billboards in Miami, apparently they are not as ubiquitous as one might hope.)

No, I’m talking about things like commas, quotation marks, capitalization, periods… stuff like that. I’m a total geek when it comes to English punctuation. I use semicolons in text messages, for heaven’s sake. But the idea of different punctuation rules had never even occurred to me. And I had lovely, dedicated English teachers who corrected every stray comma, and lovely, dedicated Spanish teachers who never mentioned punctuation in class. I’m sure there’s therapy available for this kind of thing.

So here are a FEW of the biggest differences I’ve noticed, although I won’t go into major detail because there are whole ginormous style guides written for those detailed cases. But here are the basics, in case you’d like to check your own Spanish punctuation, or refute mine, or open your students’ eyes to this idea:

(Y para los lectores hispanohablantes: Los invito a corregirme si encuentran algo equivocado. Y tal vez puedan utilizar esta listita con sus alumnos hispanohablantes, para que comparen y contrasten mientras aprendan las reglas en inglés también. Todos mejoramos juntos en este espacio, ¿no es así?)

  • In Spanish titles, usually only the first word is capitalized (except proper nouns, of course). Cien años de soledad would not be Cien Años de Soledad, despite how pretty that looks.
  • Spanish does not generally use what we call the serial comma (aka the Oxford comma). So Pepe, Paco y Gertrudis would scoff at the extra comma in Tom, Dick, and Harry.
  • The famous question marks and exclamation points can go at the beginning and end of a sentence, but they can also go around just the question or statement clause that is requiring them. Si no te gusta la gramática, ¿qué haces para divertirte? That looks pretty, too.
  • When you use quotation marks in Spanish, the period goes outside the quotation marks (unlike in English, where for typographical reasons we often put the period inside the ending quotation mark). And in many places, the wonky comillas are much more common than English quotation marks. My computer doesn’t even know how to do them, but they look like this: «Hola»
  • Also, in Spanish it is much more common to see dialogue set off with dashes.
    —Ay, no, Margarita Esmeralda Alegría Fernández de García, —dijo el hombre apuesto.

—Sí, mi amor. Es cierto. —contestó la condesa —. El hipopótamo se ha comido al conde.

So, now it’s your turn. Do you teach your students about punctuation? Do you enforce punctuation the way you enforce spelling and grammar? Do you teach about Spanish punctuation contrasted with English? Or am I blowing your mind with this topic right now?

(And please, please tell me I’m not the only grammar- and punctuation-geek out there. Anyone else? ANYONE? Can I get an “Amen”? or is that an “Amen?”)

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