Common Keyboard Symbols

Although you may think of the ampersand (&), asterisk (*), and pound sign (#) as typographical symbols found on your computer or phone keyboard, each of these symbols has its own history dating back before computers even existed. Learn more about the origins and meanings of these symbols, along with tips on how to use them. 

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Ampersand & (And)

High Angle View Of Wooden Ampersand Sign Against White Background

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The typographic symbol used to designate the word and (&) is the Latin symbol for et which means and. The name, ampersand, is believed to be derived from the phrase and per se and.

On a standard English layout keyboard, the ampersand (&) is accessed with shift+7. In many fonts, the ampersand looks much like a cursive S or a curvy plus sign but in other fonts, you can almost see the word Et in the design of the ampersand.

The ampersand is a form of ligature because it joins two characters into one.

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Apostrophe ' (Prime, Single Quotation Mark)

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A mark of punctuation, the apostrophe (') indicates the omission of one or more letters. The phrase would not becomes the contraction wouldn't with the apostrophe indicating the missing o. In gov't, a shortened form of government, the apostrophe indicates several missing letters.

The apostrophe is used for some plurals and possessives: 5's (plural) or Jill's (possessive)

The glyph used for the apostrophe can vary depending on the type of document. In typewritten or plain (unformatted) text the apostrophe is usually an upright (or slightly slanted) single straight tick mark ('). On a standard QWERTY keyboard, the key for this mark is between the semi-colon and ENTER keys.

Animated illustration of a keyboard with highlighted symbols
Lifewire / Lara Antal

In properly typeset material, a curly or typeset apostrophe is the correct glyph to use (’). This is the same character used as the right or closed quote when using single quote marks. It varies by typeface, but it generally looks like a comma except it sits up above the baseline.

On a Mac, use Shift+Option+] for a curly apostrophe. For Windows, use ALT 0146 (hold down the ALT key and type the numbers on the numeric keypad). In HTML, code the character as & #0146; for ’.

The same key used to type an apostrophe (the single straight tick mark) is used for a prime. This is a mathematical symbol used to denote a division into parts — most notably feet or minutes.

The straight apostrophe is often used for single quotes in non-typeset material (such as email or webpages). The typeset apostrophe is also one-half of a pair of characters used for single quotes. There is a left single quotation mark and a right single quotation mark.

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Asterisk * (Star, Times)

Yellow Asterisk Key on Blue
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An asterisk is a star-like symbol (*) used in literature, math, computing, and many other fields. The asterisk can denote a wildcard, repetition, notations, multiplication (times), and footnotes.

On the standard English layout keyboard, the asterisk is accessed with shift+8. On a phone keypad, it is commonly referred to as star.

In some fonts, the asterisk is superscripted or made smaller than other symbols. It may appear as three crossed lines, two diagonal and one horizontal or two diagonal and one vertical, or some variation.

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At Sign @ (Each)

Close-Up Of Wooden At Symbol On Railing

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The at sign (@) means each (or ea.), at or each at, as in "Three magazines @ five dollars" (3 magazines would cost $5 each or $15 total). The at sign is also now a required part of all internet email addresses. The character is a combination (ligature) of a and e.

In French, an at sign is called petit escargot — little snail. On the standard English keyboard, the at sign is shift+2.

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Dash - – — (Hyphen, En Dash, Em Dash)

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It's not a hyphen; a dash is a short line that serves as a punctuation mark and often represented by one or more hyphens.

The Shortest Dash, the Hyphen

A hyphen is a short punctuation mark used to join words (such as well-read or jack-of-all-trades) and to separate syllables of a single word or the characters in a telephone number (123-555-0123).

The hyphen is the unshifted key between the 0 and +/= on a standard keyboard. Hyphens are usually shorter and thicker than the en dashes although it can vary by font and the difference may be hard to discern, depending on the font. - – —

The Short Dash

A little longer than a hyphen, the en dash is roughly equivalent to the width of the lowercase n in the typeface in which it is set. En dashes (–) are primarily for showing duration or range as in 9:00–5:00 or 112–600 or March 15–31. Informally, a hyphen often stands in for a proper en dash.

Create en dashes with Option-hyphen (Mac) or ALT 0150 (Windows) — hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad. Create en dashes in HTML with & #0150; (ampersand-no space, pound sign 0150 semi-colon). Or, use the Unicode numeric entity of & #8211; (no spaces).

The Long Dash

Frequently seen written as a pair of hyphens, the em dash is a little longer than an en dash — roughly equivalent to the width of the lowercase m in the typeface in which it is set. Similar to a parenthetical phrase (like this) the em dash sets apart clauses in a sentence or may be used to provide separation for emphasis.

Create em dashes with Shift-Option-hyphen (Mac) or ALT 0151 (Windows) — hold down the ALT key and type 0151 on the numeric keypad. Create em dashes in HTML with & #0151; (ampersand-no space, pound sign 0151 semi-colon). Or, use the Unicode numeric entity of & #8212; (no spaces).

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Dollar Sign $

Dollar sign
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A symbol that looks like a capital S with one or two vertical lines through it, the dollar sign represents currency in the US and some other countries and is also used in computer programming.

Oliver Pollack is credited by many sources as being the person responsible for the U.S. $ (dollar) symbol. Seems that his version of the abbreviation for pesos was a little hard to decipher and when the U.S. needed a symbol to represent our money, the $ got the nod. Pollack doesn't always get the credit. Other possible origins include it being derived from the mint mark on Spanish pieces of eight or from a symbol for cinnabar, or from a symbol on a Roman coin. The $ symbol is also used for currency in some countries other than the United States.

One line or two? Usually written with one vertical stroke through it ($), it sometimes is seen with two parallel strokes. Another monetary symbol, the cifrano, uses two lines and looks a lot like the dollar sign. In some fonts, the line is written as a short stroke at the top and bottom of the S rather than a solid line through the character as seen in the $ symbol for Courier New.

The $ symbol denotes more than money. It's also used in a variety of programming languages to represent string, end of line, special characters, etc. On a standard keyboard, the $ symbol is accessed by typing Shift+4.

On a standard English keyboard, the dollar sign is Shift+4.

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Exclamation ! and Inverted Exclamation ¡

Studio shot of green marbles arranged in Exclamation Point
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The exclamation (!) is a punctuation mark used in English and other languages to denote an exclamatory statement such as extreme happiness, shouting, or surprise. For example: Wow! Unbelievable! That's great! Stop jumping on the bed this instant!

Use exclamation marks sparingly in text. Multiple marks such as "Good Grief!!!!!!" are not standard usage.

The mark used as an exclamation was originally a way of writing IO, a Latin word meaning exclamation or expression of joy.

There are two widely-accepted theories as to the origin of the exclamation mark:

  1.  Scribes saved space by putting the I above the O with the O eventually becoming a filled-in dot. 
  2. It was originally written as an O with a slash through it but the O eventually disappeared and the remaining slash evolved into today's exclamation mark.

Various slang terms for the symbol include bang, pling, smash, soldier, control, and screamer.

The exclamation point is also used in some math and computer programming languages.

The ! on a standard keyboard is Shift+1.

The inverted exclamation (¡) is a punctuation mark used in some languages, such as Spanish. Exclamations are used to frame an exclamatory statement, with the upside-down or inverted exclamation at the beginning ¡ and the regular exclamation at the end ! . Vi la película la noche pasada. ¡Qué susto!

The Alt/ASCII Code: ALT 173 or ALT 0161.

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Number Sign # (Pound Sign, Hash)

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The symbol # is known as the number sign or the pound sign (not to be confused with the Pound symbol denoting currency) or hash in various countries.

On a phone keypad, it is known as the pound key (U.S.) or hash key in most English-speaking countries.

When # precedes a number it is a number as in #1 (number 1). When it follows a number it is a pound (unit of weight) as in 3# (three pounds) (primarily U.S.) 

Other names for the # include hex and octothorp. # may be used in computing programming, math, web pages (such as shorthand for the permalink of a blog or to denote a special tag such as the hashtag on Twitter), chess, and copywriting. Three-pound signs (###) often denotes "the end" in press releases or typed manuscripts.

On standard U.S. keyboards, the # key is Shift+3. It may be in other locations in other countries. Mac: Option+3. Windows: ALT+35

Although the musical notation for sharp (♯) looks similar, it is not the same as the number sign. The number sign generally consists of 2 (usually) horizontal lines and 2 forward slashes. Whereas, the sharp is 2 vertical lines and 2 tilted lines so that it appears to be leaning back to the left while the number sign is more upright or leaning to the right.

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Quotation Mark " (Double Prime, Double Quotation Marks)

Quotation Marks Red Hearts Love Pattern
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Quotation marks are usually a pair of symbols used at the beginning and end of text that is quoted word for word, dialogue (such as in a book), and around the titles of some short works. The specific style of quotation mark varies by language or country. The character described here is the double quotation mark or double prime.

On a standard keyboard, the " symbol (Shift+') is most often called a quotation mark. This is also a double prime used to denote inches and seconds (also see prime). In typography, these straight double quotation marks are often referred to as dumb quotes when used as quotation marks.

In properly typeset material, dumb quotes are converted to curly quotes or typographer's quotes. When converted to curly quotes there are two separate characters used: Left Double Quotation Mark (open) “ and Right Double Quotation Mark (closed) ”. They slant or curl (in opposite directions) while the regular quotation mark or double prime is generally straight up and down.

On a Mac, use Option+[ and Shift+Option+[ for the left and right double quotation marks. For Windows, use ALT 0147 and ALT 0148 for the left and right double quotation marks (curly quotes).

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Slash / (Forward Slash) \ (Backward Slash)

Almonds special characters
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Technically, the punctuation characters referred to as slash are each a little different and have differing usage. However, in common usage today they are used interchangeably. The various forms of this slash punctuation mark are used as a separator, a word substitute, for mathematic expressions, and in web addresses (URL or Uniform Resource Locator).

There is the slash or forward slash (/) found on a standard keyboard layout (typically shares a key with the ? - question mark). You can also use ALT+47 for the same character. It is also called stroke or virgule or diagonal.

The solidus (⁄) typically leans a bit more forward than the slash. It is also called a fraction slash or inline fraction bar or division slash due to its use in mathematical expressions. In some fonts, you may encounter characters such as:

  • Solidus or Fullwidth Solidus (forward slash) /
  • Short Solidus ̷
  • Long Solidus ̸
  • Division Slash ∕

In most cases, using the slash character on the keyboard is acceptable.

  • 11/04/58 (a date)
  • 150 mi./sec (miles per second)
  • he/she (or)
  • 1/4 (one-fourth)
  • (web address)

The backward slash or backslash is a reverse solidus. The reverse solidus (\) is most commonly used as a path separator in Windows as in C:\Program Files\Adobe\InDesign and as a character in some programming languages such as Perl. The reverse solidus is also known as a reverse division character, although that usage is rare.

On a standard U.S. keyboard the \ shares a key with | (pipe/vertical bar - Shift+\) at the end of the QWERTY row of keys. You can also use ALT+92 for the same character.

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Bear, Jacci Howard. "Common Keyboard Symbols." ThoughtCo, Nov. 18, 2021, Bear, Jacci Howard. (2021, November 18). Common Keyboard Symbols. Retrieved from Bear, Jacci Howard. "Common Keyboard Symbols." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).