Decades Later, I Still Wonder Why My High School Spanish Teacher Never Mentioned This

With less than two weeks until Christmas, I am running out of time to find the perfect gift for my wife.

I’m not sure what the perfect gift would even be because whenever I ask her what she wants for Christmas, she replies with a cryptic two-word response: “You know.”

Which I clearly do not or I wouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot more shopping the last week or two — well, really just walking around and looking at stuff, but you know what I mean.

During one of these walks through a store near my home in the Riviera Maya (for you geographically challenged folks, that’s in Mexico), I glanced at a price tag and I was suddenly reminded of my high school Spanish teacher back in New York, Ms. Arroyo.

I don’t remember much from her class, and judging by the “D” she gave me on my report card that year, I didn’t remember much back then either. Nevertheless, I do distinctly recall learning that when writing numbers and prices in Spanish, the use of commas and decimal points is opposite of how we do it in English.

For example, $1,200.30 in English would be written as $1.200,30 in Spanish.

It wasn’t until I retired and moved to Mexico that I learned that not every Spanish-speaking country follows this pattern. In fact, there are several that write numbers just like we do in the United States, and Mexico is one of them.

Which Countries Do What

While we’re on the topic, let’s take a look at which countries follow which format.

The countries that follow the U.S. pattern are shown in blue:

Canada is shown in dark green because it’s officially a bilingual country. In English, numbers are written in the standard pattern (e.g. $1,200.30), but in French, the order is reversed (e.g. 1 200,30$).

The countries shown in light green follow the pattern I was taught in my high school Spanish class (e.g. $1.200,30). Spain and most of Latin America fall into this category. 

Doing It Wrong Can Be Costly

Due to the inconsistencies in how numbers are written in Spanish, it stands to reason that someone — especially someone who moved to Mexico from a country where numbers are written differently — may reverse the order. Mistakes happen, right? What’s the big deal?

Well, if it happens on a price tag or advertisement for a product or service in Mexico, the provider is required by law to honor the erroneous price — no matter how ridiculous it may seem.

Here’s a recent example from a Walmart in Mexico City.

During Buen Fin, some 32-inch televisions were marked down to “$3.788.00 pesos”. That’s way too many decimal points, and clearly an error, but that didn’t stop some shoppers from demanding that Walmart honor the price of about 19 cents USD. Walmart obviously refused and responded by correcting the sign.

Unfortunately, as I wrote above, Mexican law requires businesses to honor posted and advertised prices.

In this case, the affected customers made a complaint to the government agency tasked with enforcing consumer laws, la Procuraduría Federal del Consumidor (PROFECO), and Walmart was required to sell the televisions for less than four pesos apiece.

Crazy, huh?

Let’s Wrap This Up

Since I haven’t attended a Spanish class in a few decades, I have no idea how teachers are handling the topic of punctuation when writing numbers in Spanish. Hopefully, they are teaching students that the correct answer varies by country.

I’d hate to see any of those students get fired from a retail job in Mexico someday for using incorrect punctuation. 😉

Well, that’s all the time that I have to play on the blog this morning. I have Christmas shopping to do. Hasta luego.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

About the Author

Qroo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He and his wife moved to Mexico looking to maximize their retirement income. They later started a blog called Two Expats Mexico (qroo.us) to share their experiences as well as information about the logistical and legal aspects of retiring south of the border.

23 Comments on "Decades Later, I Still Wonder Why My High School Spanish Teacher Never Mentioned This"

  1. Monica Estrada | December 11, 2019 at 9:54 am |

    Good article and so true I often get confused with my French clients.

  2. Excellent article. Very well explained

  3. Hmmm…I live in Mazatlan and here prices are written the “Latin American” way – ie, $1.200,50 would be one thousand two hundred and 30/100 pesos. Maybe there are regional differences?! 🙂

    • That is odd because there are no regional differences noted anywhere but I see from looking at some of your stores online that they do list prices that way. That seems to just make the matter even more complicated…lol.

    • Your post has me so super intrigued. I checked through Mexican federal laws and all prices and numbers are written the way they are in English. I wonder why Mazatlan is so different? I love a good mystery.

  4. One of my twitter feeds posted the following devious suggestion:

    “I got you the coolest Christmas gift!”

    “Oooh, what is it?”

    “It’s something you said you wanted. Take a guess!”

    [Answer …]

    “Nope, that’s not it!” [scribbles note to self]. Try again!”

  5. Please let us know what the “you know” gift is/was. It was special to meet you ad Linda at LolHa several weeks ago. Love your blog. Feliz Navidad.
    Linda and Sam from Block Island, Rhode Island

  6. Michèle Favarger | December 11, 2019 at 11:29 am |

    Thanks for this intriguing discussion on money and punctuation. These differences were never discussed in my Spanish classes however I did study both in Canada and in Ecuador which follow the same pattern. Perhaps that is why? Good luck on finding the perfect gift for Linda!

  7. Stephen J Granger | December 11, 2019 at 11:36 am |

    Good point. Reminds me of a purchase that a colleague of mine made once for a work-related purchase. She got a quote on an instrument from a European supplier that was “130.000 euro.” She send them a PO for $130 and bragged about how much money they saved. And yes, she was pretty embarrassed when the vendor called her and asked about the missing cost LOL….

  8. Flowers and a love letter expressing commitment, respect and admiration is the perfect gift. That’s what I’d want, and I’m a very happily married man.

  9. Marc Feinstein | December 11, 2019 at 3:16 pm |

    Numbers and punctuation for numbers never came up in any of my Spanish classes: high school, college or at the university in Salamanca Spain.

  10. Nice informative post! Back to the gift dilemma as I understand your pain. We have come to a point in our lives that neither need anything really . Having said that in the end it’s not about the stuff it’s about the experiences . Perhaps surprise her with a little trip . You could be a hero this holiday !

  11. VERY
    INTERESTING!

  12. Anne-Marie Thibert | December 11, 2019 at 6:26 pm |

    Good to know! But as a bilingual French Canadian I just wanted to clarify how currency is written in French: $1,200.50 in English would be written as 1 200,50 $ in French. There is a space in lieu of the comma and a comma is used in lieu of the decimal point. Also the dollar sign goes after.

  13. Melinda Marsh | December 11, 2019 at 9:56 pm |

    In my hopes & dreams I’m moving to Mexico. In the meantime, in one of your posts, you explained a quicker version of learning Spanish, explaining the sound of vowels, etc. Could you repost it or send me a link to that particular article? I thought it was a great “cheat sheet”.

    • We have a whole free video series that teaches the techniques to gain vocabulary quickly by teaching you how to convert hundreds of English words that you know into Spanish and then how to get around having to conjugate as much with some plug-and-play phrases that you can just drop those words into.

      Here is the link to the page with videos and exercises: https://qroo.us/spanish-lessons-for-beginners/

  14. Next up, explain date formats, another minefield!

Comments are closed.