Comparing comma rules in Spanish and English

Differences between comma usage (especially after several hours of staring at the computer screen) sometimes result in an odd combo of rules. So I’ll share some notes with you that may come in handy for those longer works that have you tapping away late into the night.

Mind you, this isn’t an exhaustive list, just one with a relatively common oops factor.

Rules that are the same in both languages:

  • If-then (an when-then) statements get a comma: If I were a rich man, all day long I’d biddy biddy bum…
  • Interruptions are set off with commas: Where, pray tell, did the whole comma thing start?
  • Separating the subject and verb with a comma is a major sin, no matter how long the subject: Beautiful breezy beech houses with large windows and gorgeous views sprinkle the coastline.
  • Ellipsed verbs (the ones we swallowed) trigger a comma: The brown purses are leather; the black ones, vinyl.

Rules that are different:

  • A serial comma is never an option in Spanish: manzanas, peras y guayabas. Seriously, resist the urge–it’s always wrong.
  • Addresses often have commas separating the house number and the street number, although there’s variation from one country to the next, so please (pretty please!) tell us where you are and what the use is: Boulevard Precioso, 35.
  • Dates don’t separate the year in Spanish, only days: Firmado el martes, 4 de noviembre de 2008.
  • Bibliographies with books that have a volume number: Libro, 4. In English, MLS/APA cite this way: Book. Vol. 4.
  • In Spanish there is NO comma after but before a question or exclamation: Pero ¿por qué no? Pero ¡se ve raro! (Sorry, the gods of Spanish prescriptivism say no.)

I know you guys have questions and observations. Share that we may all puzzle together

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Dou says:

    I believe there’s a rule though that dictates to put a comma before “pero” in Spanish. Or at least that’s what i was taught during my University translation curriculum.


  2. Thanks for the added rule Dou!

    There is in fact a difference in the way we deal with “but” in each language. The way I learned it was to to include either a comma or a semicolon.

    Rules from the RAE:


    “Se escribe coma delante de las conjunciones o locuciones conjuntivas que unen las oraciones incluidas en una oración compuesta, en los casos siguientes”

    “Ante oraciones coordinadas adversativas introducidas por pero, mas, aunque, sino (que): Hazlo si quieres, pero luego no digas que no te lo advertí.”


    “Se escribe punto y coma delante de conectores de sentido adversativo, concesivo o consecutivo, como pero, mas, aunque, sin embargo, por tanto, por consiguiente, etc., cuando las oraciones que encabezan tienen cierta longitud: Los jugadores se entrenaron intensamente durante todo el mes; sin embargo, los resultados no fueron los que el entrenador esperaba.”

    “Si el período encabezado por la conjunción es corto, se usa la coma; y si tiene una extensión considerable, es mejor utilizar el punto y seguido.”

    In English, there’s only a comma before “but” if it separates two independent clauses.


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