Posted by: Jack Henry | July 5, 2012

Editor’s Corner: The 27th Letter of the Alphabet

While I’m pretty sure everyone is familiar with the symbols on the standard (American) keyboard, this article from Daily Writing Tips ( also provides a little history and usage information for twelve of the most common signs. Today we’ll have a look at the first four.

Note: This article contains some awkward phrasing, non-Chicago Manual of Style punctuation choices, and references to a swear word. I have not made corrections because I didn’t want to interrupt the text too many times with [sic]; my apologies to eagle-eyed readers and sticklers.

& (Ampersand)

The ampersand was, at least until well into the nineteenth century, treated as the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet, but its star has fallen, so that now it is used only informally except in registered names of businesses (“Ay, Bee & See Inc.”), which should be written as rendered; a comma preceding it is extraneous. [KC – Woe to the serial comma.]

The symbol comes from the cursive formation of the Latin word et (“and”), and the name is a slurring contraction of “and per se and,” which used to terminate schoolroom recitals of the alphabet: The phrase means “and by itself and”; instead of reciting, “. . . W, X, Y, Z, and,” children said, “. . . W, X, Y, Z, and per se and” to clarify that “and” referred to a list item rather than serving as a conjunction for an item that was left unuttered. The symbol is also seen in &c. (“et cetera”), an alternate form of etc. [KC – Boy, that ending would certainly take the “oomph” out of the alphabet song.]

American Psychological Association (APA) style allows the ampersand to link author names in an in-text citation (“Laurel & Hardy, 1921”), but other style guides call for using the word and.

[KC – One of our YellowHammer coworkers, Valerie Manning, sent me an article about the ampersand, and this link shows you how the symbol emerged from “et.” Thanks,


* (Asterisk)

The asterisk is used to call out a footnote or to refer to an annotation of special terms or conditions, to substitute for letters in profanity (“Oh, s***!”) or a name rendered anonymous (“the subject, M***”), to serve as a low-tech alternative to a typographical bullet, or provide emphasis in place of boldface (“Do *not* go there — the food is awful.”). It also has many specialized technical usages. Its name is derived from the Greek term asteriskos, meaning “little star,” and it was originally applied to distinguish date of birth from other references to years.

@ (At Sign)

Until the age of e-mail, the at sign was restricted mostly to commercial use, in purchase orders and the like, to mean “at the rate of” (“Order 1K widgets @ $2.50 per.”). It’s also used in displays of schedules for competitive sports to identify the event venue. Now it’s ubiquitous in email addresses and in social-networking usage, as well as computer protocols, but outside of those contexts, it is considered inappropriate for all but the most informal writing.

¢ (Cent)

This symbol for cent (from the Latin word centum, meaning “hundred”), unlike its cousin the dollar sign — it’s also used in many monetary systems other than that of US currency — is rare except in informal usage or for price tags. When it does appear, unlike the dollar sign, it follows rather than precedes the numeral, though as in the case of the dollar sign, no space intervenes. The equivalent usage in a context where dollar signs are employed is to treat the amount as a decimal portion of a dollar (“$0.99”); for clarity, a zero should always be inserted between the dollar sign and the decimal point.

The sign probably originated to distinguish an ordinary c from one denoting a monetary amount.

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