English As She Is Writ

Part twenty - some more marks and symbols

I’ll attempt to explain the next few symbols rather more swiftly.

I’ll start with this one:

In writing, one hundred per cent; in numbers, 100%. That curious symbol – two small circles, one on each side of a line aslant – is the result of scribes over hundreds of years finding briefer and briefer ways to write ‘per cento’, which literally means ‘for a hundred’.

There’s not much to know. In writing, British English allows for both per cent and percent; American English only the latter. I prefer per cent as it makes the meaning clearing.

The symbol % should strictly be used only in numerical or mathematical contexts, but as in the allegedly humorous graphic above it is commonplace to use the symbol, with a number, in text.

It is the case, though, that if you write the number in words you should also write per cent in words; if you use a number, use the symbol:

  •                 Eighty-five per cent
  •                 85%

And what does it mean? It still means ‘for a hundred’. For instance if it stated that thirty-four per cent of the population of Bristol drinks bottled water, this means that for every hundred Bristolians thirty-four drink bottled water. In most contexts you can assume that per cent means ‘out of a hundred’: thirty-four out of every hundred Bristolians drink bottled water.

It should be obvious that it is impossible to exceed one hundred per cent. Nonetheless one often reads of a sportsman ‘giving a hundred and ten percent’, or a celebrity endorsing a point of view ‘like, three thousand per cent’. It is possible that sometimes such formations are used knowingly for deliberate effect; I suspect that more commonly they are the result of ignorance.

And just for the fun of it, here’s a still from the 1967 film Mr Ten Per Cent, which I haven’t seen and which I imagine is dreadful.

The chap in the middle is Charlie Drake, a comedian; on either side the actors Wanda Ventham and Una Stubbs. Thespian trivia: the actor Benedict Cumberbatch is Wanda Ventham’s son.

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Back to symbols. What’s this: ^?

It is known as a caret or circumflex. Like most of the symbols I’m discussing it performs specific functions in mathematics and computing; the caret (from the Latin meaning ‘it lacks’) is used in proofreading to indicate that something should be inserted into the text; but as neither caret nor circumflex is this symbol used when writing English.

It is used, extensively, in other languages. There is a debate in France as to whether la circonflexe should be retained. It is regarded by some as obsolete in French, but I like it: it often appears in words above a letter after which Anglophones might expect to see the letter s – as in the example below, and the words hôpital, forêt and tempête, for instance. It reveals the historic links between some words in French and English.

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I’ll cover one more symbol in this instalment. Let’s do this one: *. The asterisk.

As asterisk is what it appears to be: a little star. The word is derived from Ancient Greek ἀστερίσκος, asteriskos, meaning little star.

What is it for? Oh, loads of things. The asterisk has specific uses in cricket; computing and programming; economics; education; genetics; linguistics; mathematics; music; and statistics. It has the distinction, along with the hash symbol #, of being one of the two keys on a telephone key pad that are other than numbers.

It also, of course, has its uses when one is writing English. To be precise, it has three main uses.

The first is that it indicates that there is a footnote that relates to the text that precedes the asterisk. I will demonstrate* the use in this sentence. Now look at the foot of the page. See: there’s a footnote. Sometimes there may be more than one** footnote relating to the same page; in such a case it is common to use two, and then three, asterisks, and so on.

An asterisk, or a row of them, may be used to censor text. It is not uncommon for writers to attempt to shield their readers from profanities and vulgarities by replacing with asterisks some letters in words deemed to be offensive. D*ckheads. That’s an example, not my verdict on such writers.

A short row of asterisks – three, four or five, usually – is often used to indicate a break within a longer passage of text. As an example: in a novel a chapter may run to ten or twenty pages of text, and within the chapter there may be breaks in time (one day ends, the next begins) or a scene may be described as viewed by one character, while the next scene is described as viewed by another. In such cases it is usual to break the text with a centred row of asterisks. As you can see I have used this convention in this instalment of this blog.

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That’s quite enough about g*dd*mned symbols. But there will be more in the next instalment.

Oh, here are those footnotes I promised:

* demonstrate. Here’s a photo of Mick Jagger at a demonstration in London in 1968.

** one. One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.


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