Yes, I know, there are many people who suffer from dyslexia. It’s not about them that this post is about; it’s about English and Spanish speakers who believe that punctuation is some kind of ‘optional extra’ in the written world. This meme proves that it isn’t:

Meme by
Meme by

The use of punctuation is very similar in English and Spanish, the main exception being dialogue punctuation (in English we use quotes while in Spanish we use em dashes). When it comes to the similarities, they can be seen in examples of translated sentences:

  • Jeanie, who is one of my best friends, is a great illustrator.
  • Jeanie, quien es una de mis mejores amigas, es una gran ilustradora.

Non-defining relative clauses occur in both languages and should be translated keeping the commas before and after the clause. Most educated speakers would surely use commas when they write or type sentences like these in formal register. However, when it comes to social media or SMS’s, the need for speed can create all sort of hilarious situations like this one:

Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set …

I’m still laughing my head off at this one, but of course I understand that life as a journalist puts anyone on a linguistic fast track. Context helps in order not to misunderstand what has been typed. In any case, context doesn’t come to the rescue that often. Consider the following. I’m going to include both the English and Spanish versions:

  • La maestra dijo Sarmiento no sabe nada.
  • The teacher said Sarmiento doesn’t know anything.

 These sentences without punctuation are pretty ambiguous and I haven’t given any sort of context that may come to the rescue, so we can very well say that it’s either the teacher who knows nothing, or probably it’s Sarmiento who knows nothing (I bet that some Argentinians will find some politically charged message here, but this isn’t the point now).

Let’s add punctuation now:

  • — La maestra —dijo Sarmiento— no sabe nada.
  • La maestra dijo: “Sarmiento no sabe nada.”*
  • “The teacher,” said Sarmiento, “doesn’t know anything.”
  • The teacher said, “Sarmiento doesn’t know anything.”

*Apologies, in Spanish one must use angular quotes, but they don’t seem to be supported.

I can only conclude that if we don’t want others to say that we don’t know anything, it’s better to use punctuation to the best of our knowledge without relying too much on context. 

Punctuation, a ‘species’ under threat of ‘extinction’

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