Localize your font: Spanish inver­ted question and excla­ma­tion marks

Tutorial
by Rainer Erich Scheichelbauer

30 April 2022

In Spanish, an upside-down question mark starts a question, and an inverted exclamation mark is placed at the beginning of a stressed statement.

Castilian Spanish orthography requires two special punctuation marks:

  • questiondown: the inverted question mark ¿ with Unicode value U+00BF
  • exclamdown: the inverted exclamation mark ¡ with Unicode value U+00A1

They appear at the begging of a sentence as well as mid-sentence, so as to emphasize just the part of the sentence that needs emphasizing. They can be typed on most Latin keyboards, not only on Spanish teclados. In recent years, most Spanish speakers will admit that they have not been using them consistently anymore, especially in casual texts. Or on most mobile devices, where they are a bit of a pain to type. For proper high-brow typography, they are still a must, though.

Contrary to popular belief (and to what Wikipedia claims), they have not been required, and are hardly in use, in Galician for quite some time now. They are not in use in Catalan at all, in case anyone tried to pass that myth to you. I have seen them in use in Asturian texts. But there are not that many Asturian texts. The Filipino dialect Waray-Waray has no official orthography, and to my knowledge, the inverted marks are not in use in written Waray-Waray.

Create inverted marks

The first and foremost rule is that the inverted marks are optically equal to their upright counterparts. Any optical correction you want to apply to the shapes needs to respect that. In the very most cases, you will even get away by making them exactly the same. So, you choose Glyph > Add Glyphs… (Cmd-Shift-G) and paste the following lines into the dialog that appears:

exclam=exclamdown
question=questiondown
exclam=exclamdown.case
question=questiondown.case

Then open the inverted marks for editing, and you will find the upright marks as components. Select them with your Select tool (shortcut V) and mirror them horizontally and vertically with the two mirror buttons in the Transformations panel:

exclamdown and questiondown are used for mixed case, and their dots are supposed to line up with the x-height just like the dots of the upright marks touch the baseline. If you have half-way normal vertical proportions, the bottoms of exclamdown and questiondown will end up approximately at the descender. That is not a strict requirement though. If they happen to go below the descender by just a bit, and you feel that obsessive-compulsive urge coming up in you, you have three options: either decompose the components, and squish the paths a tiny little bit until they fit a bit better; or, raise them a bit so the dot exceeds the overshoot at the x-height a bit; or, indulge in your misery and accept that punctuation does not need to fit the descender. Just make sure your inverted exclamation mark cannot be misread as a lowercase i.

exclamdown.case and questiondown.case are used for all-cap typesetting, and their dots are supposed to butt into the cap-height overshoot, their bottoms need to stand firmly on the baseline. This assumes that your upright exclamation and question marks align with the caps. If they don’t, that is most likely a mistake, and I will probably advise you to review your punctuation design. If you use automatic alignment, and you should, the flipped components align properly right away.

In any event, you need .case variants in your font. Otherwise Spanish type users may resort to the lowercase i rather than use an unadjusted exclamdown. I am not kidding. This really happens:

So make sure you have all four glyphs in your font. And if you do, we’re done. Congratulations, your font supports Spanish now!

Design variant

For the mixed-case reverted marks, it is also acceptable that they rise a bit above the x-height. This has the advantage that we do not need to care about the descender anymore at all, because the bottoms of the reverted marks will typically end up somewhere nicely between baseline and descender. Note the reverted marks in the lines with mixed case:

One more aspect to this. Imagine you have very high x-heights, at least in relation to your caps. And imagine you push the down marks even a bit further up, so that the mixed-case mark is pretty close to the cap marks:

… then the mixed-case marks will be almost okay for all-cap setting. It would still be illegal, of course. But a user who uses OpenType-ignorant software, or does not know how to access the case feature (Case-Sensitive Forms), may be able to settle for this as a compromise shape in the context of caps.

However, be aware that this would only be the lesser evil if everything fails. Do not think you can get away without the exclamdown.case and questiondown.case in your glyph set.

Smallcaps

If you have smallcap marks in your font, you can add these two lines:

exclam.c2sc=exclamdown.c2sc
question.c2sc=questiondown.c2sc

I am using the .c2sc (Small Capitals From Capitals) suffix for punctuation, because punctuation should be in c2sc only, not in smcp (Small Caps from lowercase). Because if users only convert lowercase to smallcaps, and thus, still have caps in their typesetting, punctuation will need to orient itself after the caps or otherwise likely appear way too low.

However, if you are one of those people who prefer the .sc ending for your smallcap punctuation, adjust accordingly, or get help. Petite caps: same thing. You get it.

Unusual vertical proportions

Then, if you felt super creative and have one of those fancy-schmancy designs with ridiculously deep or ludicrously shallow descenders, you are in trouble. Because the number one rule still holds true: the inverted marks need to be the same as the upright ones. But it may be hard to fit it in.

Very shallow descenders

If your descender just dip a bit below the baseline, and you just flip the exclamation mark as discussed above, exclamdown will go far below the descender. And that may break the purpose of the design:

The whole point of a shallow descender is that you don’t go below it, right? At least not far. Depending on your design, you may get away by raising exclamdown a bit:

It is a compromise. If your reverse exclamation mark still drops below the descender, it is not ideal and you have not done Spanish typography the justice it deserves.

So here is a solution. When I showed this to Spanish type designers, they told me this: the shallow descender is the guiding principle of the design, and the exclamation mark breaks it. So what you can do is sacrifice the height of the exclamation mark, which, for such a design, is a small price to pay, and then the exclamation marks actually fit, ta-daa:

Very deep descenders

The opposite is actually not really a problem. If you have extremely deep descenders, the exclamation mark can simply ignore it:

Hey. It is punctuation after all. You would not stretch down your comma either in such a design, now, would you?

Useful scripts

In the mekkablue scripts, there is a script Build Glyphs > Build exclamdown and questiondown. It builds the mixed-case, uppercase and small-cap inverted marks provided their respective uprights exist in the font already.


Sample fonts: Fusiona, Aleta, Beto. Courtesy of Alberto Romanos.

¡Thanks to María Ramos, Laura Meseguer, and the participants of Lletraferits 2022 for their input!

Update 2022-05-17: Added ‘Useful scripts’ part.