English As She Is Writ

Part nineteen - some other marks and symbols

Here are some other marks.

Any excuse to include a photograph of the Marx brothers.

However, this instalment will discuss and explain a few remaining symbols and abbreviations that are not, strictly speaking, punctuation but which are available to everyone on typewriter, computer and tablet keyboards and which therefore merit at least a moment’s consideration.

I will attempt to explain £ % ^ & * { } [ ] ~ # @ < > and /, but not necessarily in that order. All of these symbols were in use before the invention of computers, but many of them have been co-opted for specialist uses in the field of computing and particularly in the internet and the worldwide web.

I’ll start with the ampersand, which looks like this:

As you can see, its appearance varies.

It means, simply, ‘and’.

It has its origins in Latin cursive script: one way of saying ‘and’ in Latin was to use the word et, and the ampersand, although this is not easy to discern in most modern typefaces, derives from running together the letters e and t.

To demonstrate the uses of the ampersand I can do no better than quote from Wikipedia:

Ampersands are commonly seen in business names formed from a partnership of two or more people, such as Johnson & Johnson, Dolce & Gabbana, Marks & Spencer, and Tiffany & Co, and in some abbreviations of names containing the word ‘and’, such as AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph), P&O (originally Peninsular and Oriental), R&D (research and development), D&D (Dungeons & Dragons), R&B (rhythm and blues), B&B (bed and breakfast), and P&L (profit and loss).

An ampersand is sometimes used between the names of two people to indicate that they collaborated, for instance on a scientific paper, a book or a screenplay.

It is interesting to note that Wikipedia devotes far more space to the uses of the ampersand in computer languages than to its use in writing English.

When writing English I would restrict the ampersand to the specific uses explained above. If you mean ‘and’, write ‘and’. It’s only two more keystrokes. (Although, of course, as I’ve said before, in informal contexts such as text messaging a friend, anything goes. Ampersand like mad if want to.)

Let’s deal with the pound sign next – the one that looks a bit like an upper-case L.

It looks like an upper-case L because that’s what it is. It derives from the Latin word libra, meaning a set of scales. The Latin word is in use today as one of the twelve astrological signs:

The standard unit of weight in the Roman world became the libra pondo, from which we get:

  • the word ‘pound’
  • the £ sign – L for libra – representing the pound in terms of money
  • the abbreviation ‘lb’ representing a pound in terms of weight

I’ll swerve briefly into a detour about British imperial (ie non-metric) weights. Here goes (with abbreviations):

  •                 16 drams (dr) = 1 ounce (oz)
  •                 16 ounces (oz) = 1 pound (lb)
  •                 14 pounds (lbs) = 1 stone (st)
  •                 2 stone (st) = 1 quarter (qtr)
  •                 4 quarters (qtrs) = 1 hundredweight (cwt)
  •                 20 hundredweight (cwt) = 1 ton (t)

Most of these measures have been obsolete in the UK since the adoption of the much more pocket-calculator-friendly metric system, but you’ll still find people who reckon their own weight in stones and pounds, or who will refer to a ten-ton lorry.

It’s fair to say that the UK has a wary relationship with the metric system. Distances on road signs are still shown in yards and miles rather than metres and kilometres; beer is still sold by the pint (but milk is sold by both pint and litre). Just for the record, and to demonstrate what a fiendishly complex system imperial measures were, here are distances and fluid volumes.

  •                 1000 thou (th) = 1 inch (in)
  •                 3 barleycorns = 1 inch (in) – rulers usually divided inches into sixteenths
  •                 4 inches (in) = 1 hand (hh) – the hand is used only for recording the height of horses
  •                 3 hands (hh) = 1 foot (ft)
  •                 3 feet (ft) = 1 yard (yd)
  •                 22 yards (yd) = 1 chain (ch) – one chain is the distance between the wickets in cricket
  •                 10 chains (ch) = 1 furlong (fur)
  •                 8 furlongs (fur) = 1 mile (mi)
  •                 3 miles (mi) = 1 league (lea)
  •                 5 fluid ounces (fl oz) = 1 gill (g)
  •                 4 gills (g) = 1 pint (pt)
  •                 2 pints (pt) = 1 quart (qt)
  •                 4 quarts (qt) = 1 gallon (g)

I could go on – we haven’t yet considered the imperial measures of dry volume and area – but I think I’ve made the point as regards complexity and indeed fiendishness. At school in the early 1960s these were the measures we had to learn – and learn how to use. Pre-decimal currency was just as devious: few students today would be up to the challenge of dividing £11 7s 5d (eleven pounds, seven shillings and fivepence) by 9s 4d (nine shillings and fourpence).

I find that I have veered wildly off topic. I have discussed only two of the assorted marks and symbols I proposed to cover. The remainder will have to wait until the next instalment. Further deviations can be expected.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.