I guess that the Internet is a very powerful catalyst in the evolution of languages. For example, I estimated, analyzing some of my emails and a considerable percentage of any kind of messages containing Spanish text, from the past year, comparing the occurrence of ? vs ¿, that the opening question mark is used less than half as frequently as the closing question mark.

This, of course is by no means an extensive study, but it motivates the question:

Question: Is ¿ in danger of extinction?

Concretely, are there serious studies, with a broader sampling and a time-dependent plot showing presumably a trend for the use/disuse of ¿ ?

Publicity: If ¿ is going extinct, let's save it!

  • 1
    I have edited the title of your question to be more along these lines. I hope it's still within the spirit of what you are asking.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Sep 1, 2013 at 21:16

6 Answers 6


Use of "¿" in Spanish serves a specific purpose, which is to indicate the beginning of a question which otherwise would be ambiguous as to whether it were a question or a statement:

Q: ¿Existen estudios sobre este tema?

A: Existen estudios sobre este tema.

You see, the exact same sequence of words can be used for the question and the answer. The "¿" is necessary to know how to interpret the sentence from the beginning. Therefore, even if the trend in informal communication is to omit it for whatever reason, I personally doubt that we'll see it being dropped from the language formally.

In English, this ambiguity is not an issue, because there is less flexibility in word order. You start questions with an interrogative word like "how", "what" or "when", or with the word "do". Also a question can be formulated by changing the word order to set it off as a question:

Q: Are there studies on this subject?

A: There are studies on this subject.

In Spanish the word order may stay the same and be grammatically correct. In English the order of the words "there" and "are" makes one a question and one a statement, and you know it right off the bat.

An anonymous user edited my answer to mention the following (which should have just been left as a comment, not an edit):

"Yes, but in English one can also ask: There are studies on this subject? It usually indicates greater incredulity but it does serve as a question."

This is more informal language. Additionally, I'd wager that you'd come across this formulation in verbal communication more often than written. I'm not entirely certain if it is correct grammar technically, but I'm updating the answer because I agree that you will definitely hear this type of forumulation of a question (whether correct or not). I also agree that this type of formulation indicates a greater degree of incredulity. In fact, expressing a high degree of incredulity may be its only purpose. You would not formulate a sincere question in this way. Therefore, I stand by my previous explanation, and believe my points were valid.

  • This should be the accepted answer.
    – Danita
    Commented Sep 16, 2013 at 18:14

I don't think the inverted question and exclamation marks are in danger of extinction for the following reasons, among others:

  • On chats, tweets and the like, often we start typing before we decide it's a question or at least before we know where the question starts. We know it by the end of the sentence when we finish, but can't be bothered to go back and insert it at the beginning. If you look closely at your data samples, my guess is you'll probably find other more serious spelling and grammar errors.

  • Some of us are using non-Spanish keyboards, and again, the informal nature of the text or email seems forgiving enough that omitting the opening mark is not a big problem.

  • On more formal texts, books, magazines and publications both on- and off-line the opening question and exclamation marks are alive and well.

  • I am not a linguist but I remember the letters Ll and Ch, which made sense as long as they represented different sounds, were split because they caused serious inconsistencies with computer sorting. I don't recall any such complaints about opening question marks.

These are the considerations that come to my mind, but just as Rodrigo says, I may be wrong because my clairvoyance skills have always been very poor.

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    But your first two points support the conclusion that '¿' is endangered :) Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 22:01
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    You claim there is no danger of '¿' disappearing, but support such claim with two points that seem to suggest that '¿' IS disappearing. Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 12:41
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    @RodrigoA.Pérez he's not saying that is disappearing, he's saying that most of the time, for most of the people is a pain to write it. If they knew they are gonna write a question or are doing something more "formal" they would almost always use both signs.
    – Braiam
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 21:28
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    I'd like to add that, in my opinion, the standard Spanish keyboard layout has a terrible design that makes it cumbersome to type inverted marks and even most other commonplace signs, like { or @. I'm sure computer programmers in the audience will know what I'm talking about ;)
    – deStrangis
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 11:06
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    The question is asking for studies. Your answer provides an opinion. Do you have any references to back your conclusions?
    – Flimzy
    Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 13:28

I cannot answer your question for sure because I cannot read the future, but I think your evidence is quite strong unfortunately. The reason for what you observed is obviously that many of the people writing to you may be using an English keyboard and it is oh-so-tiring to type a special symbol. It happens to me when answering questions in Spanish here. I type and then add all the accents and stuff.

My English-speaking friends always marvel at the inverted question mark. They find it useful to have a visual marker of the beginning of a question (they are mostly mathematicians), so I think it is a symbol worth saving and perhaps even introducing into other less fortunate languages :) ¿Perhaps people who read this can experiment with using the inverted question mark in their English correspondence for a change? I always make it a point to accentuate my last name in English documents and to pronounce it correctly, so ¿why not do the same with a symbol that will enrich the language?.

  • I've seen J. Varilly using the opening question mark in these notes about Dirac operators (e.g. page 16), but I've allways thought that that's because he lives(?) in a Spanish-speaking country. I love your suggestion, nevertheless ¿wouldn't one have problems sending a paper with this sytaxis to a peer review journal?
    – c.p.
    Commented Sep 1, 2013 at 14:25
  • Nice... I think I just convinced myself. Commented Sep 1, 2013 at 14:28
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    ¡Oh! ¡oh! I forgot to mention that the same should hold true for '¡' Commented Sep 1, 2013 at 14:30

I do not believe it risks extinction whatsoever. The ¿ is a powerful tool in the Spanish language. The character allows a reader to know exactly when a question is being initiated. It prepares the reader, whereas, in English we tend to get lost within a sentence sometimes, whether it be a typo, curiosity about the validity of the grammar, spelling, rhetoric , etcetera. We have many many distractions in the English language like that.

A better question would be

Why doesn't English utilize the `¿` or `¡`?

I cannot seem to find any studies about the opening upside-down question mark going "extinct". Apparently though, from this source http://parles.upf.edu/llocs/cr/casacd/intcs.htm

... the opening question mark can be omitted, but it will not make the phrase a question per se. The remaining ? at the end would indicate irony, surprise, emphasis. It also must be inside parenthesis.

A mi hijo le gustan los champiñones (?) inundados en chocolate (!)

The rules of the Spanish language aren't going to change anytime soon as far as I believe. Professionally published writings will most likely always continue to use the opening and closing question (or exclamation) marks.

  • 2
    +1, but "Why doesn't English utilize the ¿ or ¡? Isn't rather Spanish unique in this feature?
    – c.p.
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 6:41
  • You have a point. I imagine though that native Spanish speakers, that read those characters, look at those characters as de facto characteristics of a formal, well-written document.
    – dockeryZ
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 12:36
  • I've editted my post to contain a source of understanding.
    – dockeryZ
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 15:23

In published text there does not appear to have been any strong decrease in use in the recent past:

enter image description here

(source: Google ngrams)

I haven't found any concrete studies yet, but I imagine theit use in informal text-based chat will be much lower generally however, in line with your personal experience.

  • The opening sign seems to be written in the present even with more care. I think it is clearer if one plots ¿/(¿+?) instead. ...which I now did see a 47.5 % plateau in the last 8 years over only 45% of 50 years ago.
    – c.p.
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 7:17

In fact, ¿ is too useful to be lost. And in formal language is still being used.

It's useful because of three reasons:

  • In Spanish the order of the words is free and it helps to avoid confusion.
  • In long sentences it is very helpful. Otherwise, how can we detect a question if the words order of our language doesn't indicate it? I remark that, for example, in Catalan, the use of ¿ (and ¡) is allowed when the question has more than one line because of this reason.
  • My favourite use: it allows me to start the question (or exclamation) intonation wherever I want, avoiding ambiguity and with no need to use a grammatically wrong comma. Let's see some examples of that:
  • Pero ¿no quieres más? It's quite different of: ¿Pero no quieres más? And a comma after this Pero is incorrect.

  • ¡María, ven! Is also different of: María, ¡ven! (both correct).

  • Así que ¡mucho ánimo! (Incorrect comma in: Así que, ¡mucho ánimo. This could be written (incorrectly): Así que, mucho ánimo! just putting the comma because of the change of intonation, but totally incorrect.)

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