Posted by: episystechpubs | November 16, 2012

Editor’s Corner: Little Star

One of my pet peeves is when I’m reading and there’s an asterisk that indicates there’s more information below, and the information never shows up. The following information is a combination of two Grammar Girl articles, and some of my own edits. Have a great weekend!

The word comes from a Greek word meaning “little star.” In the past, asterisks were used to show the omission of a letter or a passage in time, but that role has largely been taken over by the ellipsis (…).

How to Use an Asterisk

When you use the asterisk as a footnote symbol, it shows that you are planning to comment on something at the bottom of the page. You’ve made a promise, so you’d better keep it. The first rule for using asterisks is if you use one, make sure the reference starts at the bottom of the same page.

Unfortunately often, advertisements will have an asterisk that doesn’t refer to anything on the page. It leaves you wondering what the restrictions are. If the ad reads Zombie Repellant, 20% off,* and the asterisk refers to nothing, you wonder whether the discount only applies on certain days or for certain people. Does the discount apply if the zombie apocalypse has already begun? Are zombies themselves excluded from the offer?

Using an Asterisk as a Footnote Symbol

So, do asterisks differ from other footnote symbols, like numbers or letters? Yes. The Chicago Manual of Style says to use asterisks if you have just a handful of references on which you’re planning to comment. You can also use asterisks when you need to avoid using numbers or letters for indicating footnotes.

The Associated Press Stylebook (AP) says not to use the asterisk in journalism writing because the symbol may not be seen by AP computers or received by newspapers.

[KC – And Editrix says you should avoid using the asterisk if possible, especially in online documentation where the “bottom of the page” may mean scrolling through
dozens of screens. Very few of our document types require footnotes.]

The Grawlix

The asterisk used to be used to omit letters, and there’s at least one place where that practice survives: asterisks can replace letters in swear words you want to sanitize. For example, you could leave the first letter but use asterisks to replace the missing letters, leaving the reader to figure out what the word is, for example: b***h***. You could also use a grawlix, which is the term cartoonist Mort Walker gave to the string of characters (@#*&!) that appear in comic books when someone swears. [KC – For curious minds, I changed Grammar Girl’s swearword to “butthead,” since hers was a little saltier.
Hopefully you will not have the opportunity to use the grawlix in business writing!]


To summarize, the asterisk is a little star symbol which can be used to indicate a footnote or be used to edit swear words in informal text. A footnote should begin on the bottom of the same page on which the asterisk or other footnote symbol appears. Unlike superscript numbers or letters, the asterisk can be used alone when you need only a handful of footnotes in an article or story.

If you can’t get enough of this symbol, see the following Grammar Girl articles:

Kara Church

Senior Technical Editor


  1. […] For more information on asterisks and links to other articles, see the Editor’s Corner from several years ago titled Little Star. […]

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