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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.

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