The Other Marks on Your Keyboard

Your keyboard contains a number of other characters, most of which are not properly punctuation marks at all, and very few of which are normally used in formal writing, except in certain specialist disciplines. Here are the ones which are found most commonly, or which can be produced with a word processor; such special symbols are often informally called dingbats:

the per cent sign
the dollar sign
the pound sign
the cent sign
the hash mark (in computer parlance, the `pound sign')
the asterisk (in the US, informally called a `bug')
the at sign
the ampersand, or and sign
the paragraph mark, or blind, or pilcrow
the section mark
the parallel mark
the caret
the swung dash (informally called the `twiddle' or `tilde')
the underbar
the less-than sign
the greater-than sign
< >
angle brackets
{ }
braces (also called curly brackets)
« »
guillemets (French quotation marks)
» «
reversed guillemets (German quotation marks)
the plus sign
the plus-or-minus sign
the equal sign
the backslash
the pipe

You will undoubtedly be familiar with the use of the per cent sign, the dollar sign and the pound sign:

Over 40% of Australia is desert.
The USA bought Alaska for only $3 million.
This word processor costs £1800.

Note that we write £42.50, and not *£42.50p, and similarly for other currencies.

Most computer keyboards lack the pound sign, but it can usually be produced in one way or another. If you absolutely can't produce a pound sign, it has become conventional in computing circles to use the hash mark instead (hence its other name):

This word processor costs #1800.

In American English, the hash mark is used informally to represent the word `number' before a numeral, as in look for # 27 (A). This is not usual in British English, and it is out of place in formal writing.

The asterisk is occasionally used to mark footnotes. It also has one other rather curious use: it is sometimes used to replace a letter in writing a word which is felt to be too coarse to be written out in full, as in f**k. This is a usage mostly found in newspapers and magazines, in which writers are often careful to avoid offending their very broad readership. In most other types of writing, such words are normally written out in full if they are used at all. (Compare the somewhat similar use of the dash.)

A bullet may be used to mark each item in an enumeration if numbering of the items is not thought to be necessary; look at the summaries at the ends of most of the earlier sections of this document.

The at sign is chiefly confined to business documents, in which it stands for `at a price of ... each':

200 shower units @ £42.50

It is also used in electronic mail addresses to separate a username from the rest of the address, as in my e-mail address:

The ampersand represents the word `and' in the names of certain companies and legal firms, as in the name Barton & Maxwell, Solicitors. Except when citing such a name, you should never use an ampersand in place of `and' in formal writing, nor should you use a plus sign for this purpose. The word `and' is always written out.

The paragraph mark and the section mark are occasionally used to represent the words `paragraph' and `section' when referring to some part of a work: in ¶ 2, in § 3.1. They are only appropriate when brevity is important, such as in footnotes; in your text, you should write these words out: in paragraph two, in section 3.1.

The remaining symbols in my list have various particular uses in specialist disciplines, and sometimes in dictionaries, but they have no function in ordinary writing.

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

Maintained by the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex