Why do they have upside down question marks in Spanish?

upside down question markWhy do they have upside down question marks in Spanish? Unlike English, Spanish doesn’t have a question form for many types of question.
For example, in English I would say “You have a pencil.”
If I wanted to ask whether you had one I would either add the word “do” to the beginning – “Do you have a pencil?” or I would change the word order and ask, “Have you (got) a pencil?”

These subtle changes are clues that I’m asking a question. In Spanish the first statement would be
“Tienes un lapiz.” and the question would be
“Tienes un lapiz?” where I use my intonation to indicate that this is a question.

Similarly I could say
“They saw the film last night.”
and ask
“Did they see the film last night?”

In Spanish these sentences would be
“Han visto el películo ayer.” and
“Han visto el películo ayer?”

See the problem? This is fine for spoken language, but when it is written down there is no way of knowing whether you are reading a statement or a question until you get to the end of the sentence and see the question mark. To solve this problem, and for ease of reading, they decided to put an upside down question mark at the beginning of the sentence as a sign that the next thing you read will be a question. It saves you having to read the sentence twice!

upside down exclamation markSo – why do they have upside down exclamation marks in Spanish? For the same reason: an upside down exclamation mark indicates that the next thing you read will be an exclamation. If you think about it, it’s far more logical than our English system where you don’t know the exclamation is coming until it’s too late!

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