Holy @#$%*!

I thought today we would give a shout out to some of our friends on the second row of the computer keyboard.

Symbols seem to be used more and more, as we abbreviate in our instant messaging. Please allow me to indulge in a little review of symbols and how they are used—and often, misused–in writing.

!  The exclamation point is especially effective in writing dialogue—as in “Holy backslash, Batman!” Unfortunately, the exclamation point has become overused in most other types of writing, including e-mail; in fact, placing one in the subject line can land an e-mail in the recipient’s spam folder. Exclamation points are generally inappropriate in plain text and especially in business correspondence. If the sender is emotional enough to type an exclamation point, he or she would be wise to calm down before submitting anything. 

@  Today we use the “at” sign most commonly in e-mail addresses. Before the Internet, though, it was created as a symbol for “at the rate of,” such as 10 apples @ 10 cents each = $1.  The “at” symbol is permissible in instant messaging, but please don’t ask “where R U @?”

$  The dollar sign is used in tables and in text preceding a dollar value. In text, there is no need to also type the word “dollar” if you have used the symbol. It’s either/or.  For example, “if I had $1 million” or “if I had a million dollars.”

&  Use of the ampersand (please, it’s not “ampersign”) bears some attention here, as it has gotten out of control. The ampersand is commonly reserved for one purpose:  when it is part of a company’s formal name, such as Procter & Gamble or Barnes & Noble. Style authorities point out that ampersands may sometimes be used in citations, typically, bibliographies or statute citations. Occasionally we’ll see one in a movie or magazine title or product name (e.g., Kraft Macaroni & Cheese). Just remember – the ampersand should never be used in lieu of “and,” especially in a sentence, or even in bullet points. It might seem an easy way to save space but your readers will think it looks cheesy. Because it is.

%  Another symbol run wild is the percent (one word) sign. The percent symbol is only used in tables, not in text. If you are writing and using the word “percent,” use the word “percent.” The same goes for “greater than” and “less than,” whose symbols are also reserved for mathematical notation. As with practically everything in English, there are exceptions. For example, the percent symbol is sometimes permitted in certain scientific text. The American Medical Association Manual of Style permits either the word or the symbol, noting that, in the composition of a drug, the symbol is used: “containing 0.42% hydroxyethylcellulose and 1.67% povidone.” 

*  In my mind, the most important point is this: asterisk is pronounced just like it looks, as-ter-isk, not asterick or astrick. If this is hard for you, take it apart – the last syllable is risk. Just remember, if you use an asterisk to refer to something, it must have a mate somewhere on the page—typically at the bottom—or in the section. The symbol is also a star, as in, “press star on your telephone keypad.”

Incidentally, while we are talking about pressing star, isn’t it about time we stop instructing callers to “dial” zero for assistance? If anyone is indeed dialing anymore, dialing star probably won’t to do anything except maybe break a nail.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Technology and Social Media

10 responses to “Holy @#$%*!

  1. Dennis Jones

    Some of the symbols have/had a specific role, like the exclamation mark/point (!) is stressing remarks, or the asterisk (*) in filling in blanks in words or sentences. But, they also now appear as fillers or quasi-expressions, such as mere ‘!’. They can be shorthand too, such as ? instead of writing question.

    What about the poor # or ~, both of which have actual literate or arithmetic roles.

    • I didn’t know what to say about those. My posts tend to come from peeves. Can you suggest some for # or ~? I confess to having used ~ as a decorative dash. ?!?

  2. Sheree Moyer

    I am totally guilty of over using the exclamation point. However, it is because I am just overly enthusiastic 🙂 !!!!!

  3. Sharon

    I use ~ to mean nearly. For example, if I am labeling pictures and my son is too far past 12 to write 12 1/2 or 12 3/4 but is not quite 13, I will write ‘~13’ to convey the fact that he is practically 13.

    On a different subject, you should check out “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time” by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson, which is exactly what the title claims. It is written in a style heavily influenced by the literary tradition of both the medieval quest and more modern fantasy. I’d like to know what you think.

  4. Two things:

    1) I am peeved by the interchangeable use of the hyphen (-) as, either, “to” or “through.” As in “ages 10 to 12” or “ages 10 through 12.” If you mean “to,” write “to.” If you mean “through,” write “through.”

    2) I love all your posts, and I respect and admire you as an authority. So while I hate to correct you, I thought you would want to know Procter & Gamble spells “Procter” with an “e,” not a second “o.”

    • Thanks for your comments, Claire. I corrected the Procter typo. I do try to use “to” or “though” instead of a hyphen or dash so any mistake there is unintentional. If you can direct me to the hyphen and to/through inconsistencies, I will correct those as well. Thanks again.

      • P.S. I sheepishly add my misspelling of Procter & Gamble to an earlier one of Northrop Grumman. As someone with a corporate background, I should know better.

  5. I should like to add a rider about the ampersand. In my more youthful days, it was de rigeur to use the ampersand in internal correspondence between editors and between editors and the authors. The reason is that the symbol then acts as a marker for text that is not part of the manuscript (since MS text shouldn’t be using ‘&’ anyway).

    When I first started in publishing (alas, many decades ago), people could get fired for non-observance of this rule. Fortunately, nobody got fired. Even today, I write all my internal stuff with ‘&’ for ‘and.’ Obviously, I don’t do it on ‘live’ material.

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