Posted by: Jack Henry | January 8, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Asterisks

Today I’d like to talk to you about asterisks. I know we’ve discussed them before, but I continue to see them misused so it seems like time for a refresher.

What’s an asterisk? It’s a little star (*) on your keyboard. Truly, that’s what it looks like, and that’s what it means. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

asterisk (n.)

"figure used in printing and writing to indicate footnote, omission, etc., or to distinguish words or phrases as conjectural," late 14c., asterich, asterisc, from Late Latin asteriscus, from Greek asteriskos "little star," diminutive of aster "star"

Asterisks are generally used for two things: to introduce a footnote, or to represent characters that have been removed.

First, let’s talk about footnotes. If you’re writing something that doesn’t require pages and pages of footnotes, you can probably get away with using an asterisk. The asterisk in this case goes after the sentence for which you are creating a footnote. Then, a second asterisk goes at the bottom of the page before the footnote reference.

For example, on the left is an excerpt from an article. The phrase ending “…the Spenserian stanza” is followed by an asterisk, and at the bottom of the page the asterisk appears again, noting the source of the article.

You might also see asterisks in advertisements, signaling that more information is coming elsewhere on the page. For example, this advertisement has an asterisk after the initial price. This asterisk indicates that there is more information to follow…down near the bottom of the ad.

The mistake I see most often is that when people use an asterisk, they do not follow with the footnote or additional information. The asterisk says, “Hey, look at me!” and then when you look down at the bottom of the page, there is nothing there. That causes a lot of frustration and confusion to your readers. So, if you use an asterisk like this, make sure that you follow it up with another asterisk at the bottom that contains the follow-up information or footnote.

Note: The other thing about using an asterisk rather than numbers is that the text can get clunky. If you need more than one footnote, the asterisk is followed by the dagger (†), double dagger (‡), section mark (§), parallels (), and number sign (#); when you run out of those, you start doubling those characters, so then you would have ** , ††, ‡‡, etc. The bottom of your document will start looking like cave paintings. Most word processing software makes numbered footnotes easy—so I’d opt for the footnotes.

The second common use of the asterisk is to represent missing characters. Here at JHA, we might see the asterisks representing password characters. Out in the big, bad world, asterisks are often used in place of letters to represent swear words.

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

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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