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Ampersands, Asterisks, and Hash Signs: Oh My!

ampersand, hashtag for writersBy Allison VanNest of Grammarly.com

Freelance writers often work on a wide variety of projects for varying audiences, from casual content marketing pieces to formal business plans. Sometimes, this means dealing with conflicting style guides (or no style guide at all). This can be especially tricky with typographical symbols (e.g., &, *, or #) that are common in everyday writing but not necessarily appropriate for some types of writing.

Here’s the rundown on three of the most common symbols you might encounter:


The ampersand dates back to the Roman Empire in 63 B.C., where it was invented as a component of shorthand by Marcus Tullius Tiro. The symbol has been found on the walls of Pompeii and illuminated many a Medieval manuscript.

As an abbreviation for the word “and,” it is often found in modern day casual writing. However, in all but a few circumstances, you should spell out the whole word. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “Exceptions include expressions like ‘R&D’ and names of corporations that are generally abbreviated, such as AT&T, where it would be odd to spell out ‘and’ but not the rest of the abbreviation.”

If you’re going to write an ampersand longhand, make sure you go in the correct direction. Otherwise, it’s a treble clef.


Asterisks (pronounced “aste-risk”) generally denote footnotes in formal or academic writing. They can also be used to show an elided letter (as in “D*mn it!”), though this is less common. According to Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, “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.”

If there are multiple footnotes on a single page, the appropriate order is asterisk, dagger, double dagger, and a section symbol (§). If you have more than four footnotes on a single page, there are more options, but you may want to rethink the balance between text and footnotes.

A single asterisk or a group of three is sometimes used to show a break in a page. If that’s the case, the symbol should be centered on a separate line between sections of text.


The hash sign has been traditionally used to indicate a number, as in “We’re #1!” However, since the rise of Twitter, the hash sign has become an integral component of the hashtag. Now it’s much more common to see the hash sign used to indicate a topic, such as #grammar or #wordnerd.

More commonly called the “pound sign” in North America (and also, whimsically, an “octothorpe,” though that name did not catch on), it’s a familiar key on most touchtone telephones.

Putting it all together: When a curse word is replaced by a series of typographical characters (@*#&!), it’s called a Grawlix. The term was coined by cartoonist Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey, in the 1960s.

Depending on the settings of your spell check program, you may find that it overlooks the inappropriate use of ampersands, asterisks, hash signs, and other typographical symbols. Grammarly’s supercharged spellchecker allows users to set the formality level of a particular piece of writing, from casual to academic prose.

Allison VanNest of Grammarly.com is also a freelance writer who contributes often to About Freelance Writing.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Of course, coming from the UK, I’ve wondered why # is called the pound sign, when there is an actual £ sign for the currency. 😉
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..Marketing My Business – An EvolutionMy Profile

    • Hmmmm… before telephone keypads and social media I associated # with pound like in weight #1 = it weighs one pound… and being American never even considered the pound sign for currency.

      • Well, that might explain it, anyway. I hadn’t thought of the weight. But there is also a textual abbreviation for pounds – lb or lbs (from the Latin libra, I believe)
        Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..Marketing My Business – An EvolutionMy Profile

        • Yes, that’s right… wikipedia says “The hash symbol was often used in information technology to highlight a special meaning. In 1970 for example, the hash symbol was used to denote immediate address mode in the assembly language of the PDP-11[6] when placed next to a symbol or a number. In 1978, Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie used # in the C programming language for special keywords that had to be processed first by the C preprocessor.[7]” but that’s not early enough… it’s been on at least American keyboard for ages. Hmmmm

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