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Today we are going to examine the main punctuation marks in English and how their use varies in comparison with Spanish. Oh, so it varies?! Yes, and sometimes it varies a lot. Although most of the punctuation rules are the same, there are differences and in some cases these are very significant. Although you have probably never been taught them in English class, the differences go far beyond the matter of the question marks and exclamation marks used only at the ends of sentences.

The full stop (or period). As in Spanish, the full stop indicates the end of a sentence and is not used after a question mark or exclamation mark.

When you abbreviate a word you must also use the full stop (for example Incorporated is Inc. and according is acc.) unless the last letter of the abbreviation is the last letter of the original word (Limited is Ltd). Neither is the full stop used when the abbreviation is pronounced as a word, such as UNESCO or WHO (OMS in Spanish)

When writing numbers in English use the full stop (referred to as a “decimal point”) and not a comma to indicate the decimals.

The comma. The comma is used to indicate a pause between phrases. However, in English it is used in a different way to Spanish in certain situations. For instance:

  • When we are making a list we use commas to separate the items in the list, but when we get to the last two elements we omit the comma and use the coordinating conjunctions and or or: Please buy some water, milk, bread and butter. So far, this is the same as in Spanish, unless you are writing in American English, when a comma is used to separate the last item in the list: Please buy some water, milk, bread, and butter. If there is a risk of confusion, in British English a comma is also used before the conjunction: We had soup, a salad, chicken, and pineapple (the chicken and pineapple were two separate items) versus We had soup, a salad, and chicken and pineapple (the chicken and pineapple were together in a recipe).
    Unlike in Spanish, in English the comma is not used before but (I was supposed to attend the meeting but I did not go) or because.
  • We also use a comma after the greeting in a letter or an email (Dear Mark,), which is not the case in Spanish (Apreciado Mark:).
  • Another very important use of the comma is to avoid ambiguity. For example, Let’s eat grandpa is very different from Let’s eat, grandpa. Volkswagen took advantage of this peculiarity in one of their recent advertising campaigns.
  • As mentioned above while discussing the full stop, everything in English is the other way round when it comes to numbers, and the comma is used to indicate thousands and not decimals (€ 1,599 means one thousand five hundred and ninety-nine euros).

The colon. We have already mentioned that in English a colon is not used after the greeting in a letter. So when should we use it?

As in Spanish, the colon is also used to introduce a list. For example: We’ve got a lot to buy for tonight’s supper: salmon, dill, peppers, chips and some extra veggies. Similarly, it is used before introducing an explanation (I’m going to leave: you are not doing what you said you would do and I’m not willing to wait any longer).

The colon can also be used to introduce a quotation but we’ll deal with that when discussing quotes or inverted commas.

The semicolon. This punctuation mark indicates the relation between parts of compound sentences and its use is almost the same as in Spanish. Basically it is used to separate two related ideas (I think that’s a great suggestion; let’s hope our boss agrees with it too).

When we make a list and the items are not single words but short phrases, we also use semicolons instead of commas (My boss asked me to: make all the phone calls; get the expense report ready; prepare the sales pitch and give the presentation!)

The dash. In English the dash is usually used to indicate a break in a speech or the omission of a word (in Spanish this would have to be expressed by an ellipsis).

The dash often marks a pause that could also have been signalled by a comma, semicolon or colon: I can’t wait for you to be ready – I’m running late! It is also used to introduce information that could be left out: I got the conference room ready – in fact, he made me do it. 

Two dashes are used when conflicting or additional information is provided (equivalent to a less explicit version of brackets): My boss wanted me to do everything – including that phone call – and he wanted it done right away.

Quotes (also known as quotation marks or inverted commas). While they are only used in quotations in Spanish, inverted commas in English are used for both quotations and direct speech. Furthermore, in English the other punctuation marks are usually placed inside the inverted commas.

Should the quotation be introduced by a colon or a comma? As a general rule, when the introductory phrase ends with a verb such as say, think, believe, ponder, recall, question, ask and suchlike, a comma is used. (Thoreau states directly his purpose for going into the woods when he says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”). Otherwise, or if the sentence is very long, you can use a colon (Thoreau states directly his purpose for going into the woods: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”).

In this video you will find an explanation of the three ways of inserting quotations into a text in English.

And lastly, something you probably already know: how to use question marks and exclamation marks. There’s not much to be said. The difference from Spanish is that they are only placed at the end of a sentence, never at the beginning: Are you okay? or We’re running late!

This is just a rough guide to the differences between Spanish and English punctuation. If you want to learn more, follow these links for detailed explanations: