Definition and Examples of Asterisks (*)

The uses and misuses of this punctuation mark

Asterisk
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 An asterisk is a star-shaped symbol (*) primarily used to call attention to a footnote, indicate an omission, point to disclaimers (which often appear in advertisements), and dress up company logos. An asterisk is also often placed in front of constructions that are ungrammatical.

History

The term asterisk comes from the Greek word asteriskos meaning little star. Along with the dagger or obelisk (†), the asterisk is among the oldest of the textual marks and annotations, says Keith Houston in "Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks." The asterisk may be 5,000 years old, making it the oldest mark of punctuation, he adds.

The asterisk appeared occasionally in early medieval manuscripts, according to M.B. Parkes, author of  "Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West," adding that in printed books, the asterisk and obelus were used principally in conjunction with other marks as signes de renvoi (signs of referral) to link passages in the text with sidenotes and footnotes. By the 17th century, printers were placing notes at the bottom of pages and enumerating them using an ordered sequence of symbols, mainly the asterisk or dagger [†].

Footnotes

Today, asterisks are used mainly to point the reader to a footnote. According to "The Chicago Manual of Style, 17 Edition," you can use asterisks (as opposed to numbers) when only a handful of footnotes appear in the entire book or paper:

"Usually an asterisk is enough, but if more than one note is needed on the same page, the sequence is * † ‡ §."

Other styles use asterisks slightly differently when indicating footnotes. Cues for references are generally rendered with (1) or 1, but sometimes an asterisk is used between parentheses or alone, according to the "Oxford Style Manual."

You can even attach an asterisk to the title of an article, as Peter Goodrich notes in his essay, "Dicta" published in "On Philosophy in American Law":

"The asterisk footnote now tends to play the role of listing institutional benefactors, influential colleagues, student assistants, and the circumstances surrounding the production of the article."

Used as such, the asterisk points readers to a footnote listing names, patrons, and even a congratulatory message.

Asterisks to Indicate Omissions

Many publications and stories include quoted material to add credibility to a piece and heighten interest. But people don't always talk in the Queen's English; they often curse and use swear words, providing a challenge to writers when publishers prohibit the use of salty language—as most do. Enter the asterisk, which is often used to indicate letters that have been omitted from cuss words and bad language, such as s**t, where the mark replaces two letters in a term referring to excrement.

MediaMonkey in "Nick Knowles's Twitter SOS," a short piece published in The Guardian gives this example:

"Rhys Barter was shocked to receive messages calling him a 't***face' and 'a**e'—we can only guess what the asterisks stand for.... Knowles later apologised, saying he had been 'sabotaged' after he left his computer unattended while filming on a building site in Liverpool." 

The dash was used to indicate the omission of letters from words as late as the early-1950s, said Eric Partridge in "You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies." But by the middle part of the 20th century, asterisks generally displaced the dash in nearly all such uses.

Other Uses

The asterisk is also used for three other purposes: to point out disclaimers and ungrammatical constructions as well as in company logos.

Disclaimers: Remar Sutton gives this example of a disclaimer in "Don't Get Taken Every Time":

"J.C ... picked up the proof of the ad that was running in Sunday's paper, a four-color spread. The headline read: 100 NEW CARS UNDER $100 PER MONTH! THIS IS NOT A LEASE!* The small asterisk by the headline led to lines of copy readable only with 'the finest magnifying glass,' J.C. liked to joke. *Requires 50 percent down payment; 96-month financing; requires trade-in equity; on approved credit; options extra...."

Ungrammatical uses: Sometimes the context of an article calls for an ungrammatical use. But most writers and publishers want you to be aware that they do understand grammar and that they've included an ungrammatical phrase or sentence for illustrative purposes, such as:

  • *That's the woman that we couldn't find out whether anybody likes her.
  • *Joe unhappy seems the test failed.
  • *Two paintings is on the wall

The sentences are not grammatically correct, but the meaning of each is comprehensible. You might insert these kinds of sentences in quoted material but use the asterisk to show that you realize they contain grammatical errors.

Company Logos: Bill Walsh, the late copy chief at the Washington Post, said in his reference guide, "The Elephants of Style," that some companies use an asterisk in their names as "stylized hyphens" or gimmicky decorations, such as:

  • E*TRADE
  • Macy*s

But "punctuation is not decoration," says Walsh, who uses the hyphen for the internet broker (and lowercases all of the letters in "Trade" other than the initial T) and an apostrophe for the department store:

  • E-Trade
  • Macy's

The "Associated Press Stylebook, 2018" agrees and goes further, advising that you should not use "symbols such as exclamation points, plus signs or asterisks that form contrived spellings that might distract or confuse a reader." Indeed, the AP actually bans the use of asterisks altogether. So while this punctuation mark does have its place, as a general rule, use it sparingly and only in the previously discussed instances.

The asterisk can be distracting to readers; keep your prose flowing smoothly by omitting it in when possible.