Posted by: episystechpubs | March 22, 2022

Editor’s Corner: The Asterisk, revisited

Most of us know what an asterisk (*) looks like, but what is it? How should it be used?

The word asterisk is from the Greek word asteriskos, which means little star. According to an article I read on ThoughtCo, there are several uses for what the article calls the most ancient punctuation mark (around 5000 years old):

  • To call attention to a footnote
  • To indicate an omission
  • To point to disclaimers (which often appear in advertisements)
  • To note constructions that are ungrammatical
  • To dress up company logos

Let’s have a look at these uses.

Footnotes

An asterisk is placed beside text to indicate that there is more information on the word or passage it marks. The additional information can be found at the bottom of the page where it appears. According to our style guide, Chicago Manual of Style, it’s okay to use asterisks for footnotes if there are only a few in an entire paper. When you have multiple items per page or throughout a book, however, it is much cleaner to use numbered footnotes.

As an editor, one of the biggest faux pas I see with asterisks is people using them in documents, but not including anything at the bottom of the page to explain why the text was marked! If the asterisk doesn’t clarify what it marks on that page, it’s useless. An example is a series of fields that say Enter the date*. At the bottom of the page, you might expect clarification on which date, such as:

*The date the form was filled.

Omissions

“We’re werewolves, not swearwolves!” (From What We Do in the Shadows, the movie.)

Asterisks, (like the grawlix %@$&*!) can be used in place of profanity. When you’re reading an article or story and you don’t want to offend the reader, you may see something like, “He’s being a real a**.” You know what the missing letters are, but it’s considered less offensive than coming right out and cussing at the reader.

Other Uses

The “other uses” aren’t recommendations, but they are things you might notice when you’re out and about.

  • Disclaimers: Sometimes you might see an advertisement with an asterisk that guides you to the tiniest of disclaimers—the written equivalent of the TV or radio ad where the spokesperson is speaking in quadruple time and mentioning all of the things they must say legally, but don’t want to.
  • Ungrammatical uses: I’ve never seen this, but apparently people will call attention to bad grammar by marking it with an asterisk. For example:

    *Bill and Ted was having an adventure.

    Don’t use bad grammar and nobody will put an asterisk by your work. 😊

  • Company logos: E*TRADE is an example of someone using an asterisk as a “stylized hyphen.” The late copy chief at the Washington Post responded to this perfectly: “Punctuation is not decoration.” Agreed. Just don’t do it.

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her

Technical Editor, Advisory

Editor’s Corner Archives: https://episystechpubs.com/


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