Other Signs and Symbols
In addition to the primary punctuation marks used in English, there are a number of signs and symbols that often appear in day-to-day writing but aren’t considered standard punctuation. This section will give a brief overview of these miscellaneous typographical symbols and how they are (or might be) used in modern English.
Note that this section is not meant to be complete or exhaustive; there are many other typographical marks in existence that serve various functions. We’re just going to look at those that we are most likely to encounter in everyday writing.
The asterisk ( * ) is perhaps the most commonly occurring nonstandard symbol used in English writing. It is primarily used to indicate a footnote (a clarifying, explanatory, or illustrative note placed at the bottom of the page), though it can also be used to replace omitted letters or words. Note that we pronounce the “-isk” at the end of the word; it is not pronounced “asterix.”
When something we are writing requires a detailed explanation or clarification that will not fit neatly into the sentence or paragraph, we can create a footnote at the bottom of the page or later in the text to provide additional information without disrupting the flow of our writing.
When an asterisk is used this way, it appears immediately and without a space after the word or sentence linked to the footnote. If it appears after a word that is already followed by a punctuation mark, the asterisk comes after that mark, with the exception of an em dash. When we introduce the footnote at the bottom of the page, the asterisk always comes first (unless the footnote is in parentheses) followed without a space by the first word of the footnote. Let’s look at some examples:
- Join now to get three months of free Internet!*
- *Terms and conditions apply; after three months, cost increases to $50 per month.
- We can see by his own statements* that Robertson doesn’t hold this principle to be always true.
- *These were recorded in an interview with KYYL Radio on August 24, 1998.
- In the majority of cases,* there is a reasonable correlation between the two events.
- (*343 out of 370 individual cases studied.)
- It’s important to emphasize this fact*—even though (and perhaps because) many will try to dispute it.
- *Verified by PolitiFact on June 7, 2015.
Note that if we have multiple footnotes on the same page, we simply add multiple asterisks—one for each footnote used. We then use the corresponding number of asterisks to introduce each footnote at the bottom of the page, so it’s easier for the reader to see which piece of information correlates to which part of the main text.
- During his time as governor,* Smith presided over the largest budget surplus in the state’s history** but still managed to bankrupt the state by the time his term finished.***
- **$2.8 billion as of January 1998
- ***As of December 2002, the state had a budget deficit of $1.3 billion
However, if you are writing something that requires a large number of footnotes, such as an academic paper, you should use numbers or letters to organize them instead of asterisks. Check your school’s or employer’s style guide for the proper or preferred way to format footnotes.
Replacing omitted text
A less formal function of the asterisk is to stand in place of words or letters that have been omitted from a text. This is often due to the word(s) being considered vulgar, offensive, or objectionable, though not exclusively. Generally speaking, we use as many asterisks as there are letters being omitted (though this is by no means a concrete rule), and we maintain all original punctuation in the sentence.
- “My father was a real ****,” Smith told reporters, “but I never thought he’d be capable of this.”
- “Don’t be such an a******, Steve.”
- “I was speaking with E**, and he told me that he was visiting R***** later this week.”
- “With the page torn, all I could read was, ‘Please, find a fr****.’ Who knows what it’s supposed to mean.”
- “My client, ************, has requested not to be referred to by name again during this inquest.”
More formally, we would use em dashes to mark words or letters that have been left out or are missing from the text. If we are replacing part of a word, we use two dashes; if we are replacing an entire word, we use either two or three (just be consistent). For example:
- “My father was a real ———,” Smith told reporters, “but I never thought he’d be capable of this.”
- “Don’t be such an a——, Steve.”
- “I was speaking with E——, and he told me that he was visiting R—— later this week.”
- “With the page torn, all I could read was, ‘Please, find a fr——.’ Who knows what it’s supposed to mean.”
- “My client, ———, has requested not to be referred to by name again during this inquest.”
Finally, be aware that an omission from a quotation for the purposes of shortening it must be done with an ellipsis (. . .), not asterisks or dashes. See the section on Ellipses for more information about how this is done.
As a multiplication symbol
It’s also worth mentioning that the asterisk is sometimes used as a symbol of multiplication instead of the more traditional ×. For example:
- 2*2 = 4
- 5*4 = 20
The ampersand ( & ) is a symbol used in informal (and occasionally formal) writing to represent the word and. The symbol is actually a stylized ligature that combines the two letters of the Latin word et (meaning “and”) into a single symbol.
The ampersand is especially common in commercial names of companies and brands, and it is often featured in logos and graphic designs. Commonly recognized abbreviations that feature the word and often use ampersands as well. For example:
- “Daniels & Jones Insurance Co.”
- “I just need some R&R [rest and relaxation].”
- “My brother loves hip-hop, but I’m more of an R&B [rhythm and blues] fan.”
- “During the course of the audit, we will need P&L [profit and loss] reports for the last three fiscal years.”
In more formal or academic writing, some style guides also recommend using an ampersand for parenthetical citations of sources written by two or more authors, as in:
- However, the authors assert that reliance on “antiquated methodology and outdated preconceptions” is still rampant in many government agencies (Smith, Burke, & Robertson, 2002).
However, other style guides recommend spelling out and completely, so check your school’s or employer’s preferred style guide to be sure which you should use. If in doubt, use and.
Finally, because the ampersand represents et, it was formerly used to write the abbreviated form of the Latin et cetera (meaning “and so on”), appearing as &c.. For example, “Various contracts, receipts, invoices, &c., were strewn about the office.” In modern English, though, this looks rather peculiar, and it is much more common to write the abbreviation as etc.
The Swung Dash
The swung dash ( ~ ), also known as a tilde* or a wavy dash, is a mark that has come to mean “approximately” in informal, conversational English—it is used primarily before numbers to indicate that the number is not exact or precise. For example:
- “I think we should have ~40 guests coming today.”
- “Please be here ~7 PM.”
The swung dash was formerly used in a more formal way to represent letters or words previously mentioned in a text. This was sometimes used in dictionary definitions as a way of saving space, but it has fallen into disuse. Another former use was to stand in for an omitted word or letter, but this function has largely been taken over by dashes and ellipses. Here are some examples of how swung dashes might be used in these ways:
- quiet adj. Making no sound; silent: a ~ library; a ~ town; a shy and ~ child.
- “The defendant, ~, is accused of grand larceny and corruption.”
However, it is exceptionally rare to encounter a swung dash in modern writing that means anything other than “approximately.” (Remember, it should only be used in this way in very informal writing).
(*Note: Technically speaking, a tilde is an accent mark placed above certain letters in other languages to indicate a particular pronunciation, as in the Portuguese não (“no”). However, the tilde and the swung dash are becoming near-synonymous terms, due to their similarity in appearance.)
The Percent Sign
The percent sign or percent symbol ( % ) is used, as the name suggests, to indicate a numerical percentage—that is, a ratio or fraction of 100. It appears immediately after the number it accompanies, without a space. For example:
- “Sales have dropped by about 15% this quarter, but we’re expecting a 35% overall increase for the year.”
- “I’m about 99% certain that this is correct.”
Note that, unless you’re writing a more technical or scientific document, it is generally recommended that you write out the word percent (or per cent, a common alternative in British English). The first example would thus look like this:
- “Sales have dropped by about 15 percent this quarter, but we’re expecting a 35 percent overall increase for the year.”
The At Sign
The at sign or at symbol ( @ ) was originally an accounting symbol meaning “at a rate of.” It still might be used in this way when writing out foreign currency conversions, as in:
- “The bank will be selling US dollars for euros @ 1.1014 euros per dollar.”
In everyday writing, it is much more commonly used to identify the host domain in email addresses or to identify someone’s username on a social media platform, in which case it reads aloud simply as the word “at.” For example:
- “If you have any other questions, please email us at email@example.com.”
- “In response to @user1, your comments were totally illogical!”
Very informally, we might see @ used to represent the actual word at, as in quick, shorthand notes or text messages. For instance:
- “Hi Tom, @ store now, home soon.”
- “Meeting w/ Jeff & Mary @ 7 PM.”
The Number Sign
The number sign ( # )—also known as the pound sign (in American English) or hash (in British English)—is primarily used to indicate numbers, standing in for the word number in a sentence. For instance:
- “This is my #1 favorite place to eat.”
- “I’ve always loved Beethoven’s Symphony #5.”
- “Our address is 123 East Avenue, Apartment #12.”
This is an especially common usage in American English, whereas British English tends to favor “No.” (the abbreviated form of number) instead:
- “This is my no. 1 favorite place to eat.”
- “I’ve always loved Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.”
- “Our address is 123 East Avenue, Apartment No. 12.”
The number symbol is also used in social media, where it is known as a “hashtag.” It is used to mark a word or unspaced phrase that acts as a trend or theme, which can then be used by multiple people to comment on the same topic. For example:
- “Looking forward to voting in the #election.”
- “I can’t wait to see all my family and friends in New Orleans! #noplacelikehome”
- “We all need to be kinder to each other! All you need is #love!”
An interpunct ( · ), also known as a midpoint, middle dot, or centered dot, is rather rare in everyday writing, but it has a few specific formal uses in English.
One use of the interpunct is to indicate syllable breaks within a word. This is most commonly found in dictionary entries to help demonstrate how a word is pronounced:
As a decimal point
In addition to representing syllables, interpuncts are also occasionally used as the decimal point in a number. This used to be especially common in British English, particularly before the spread of modern word processors when a period (full stop) became much easier and quicker to type. It is now much less common to see an interpunct used in this way in everyday writing, even in British English, but it is not unheard of. Let’s look at some examples that use interpuncts rather than periods as decimal points:
- “I bought this for just £450·50!”
- “We found that X equals 43,456·21.”
As a multiplication symbol
Finally, it’s worth noting that, like the asterisk, the interpunct is also sometimes used as a symbol of multiplication instead of the more traditional ×. For example:
- 2·2 = 4
- 5·4 = 20
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