Asterisk Symbol

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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An asterisk is a star-shaped* symbol (*) primarily used to call attention to a footnote, indicate an omission, or point to disclaimers (which often appear in small print in advertisements, contracts, and the like).

In language studies (and on this website), an asterisk is commonly placed in front of a construction that's considered ungrammatical (for example, "*Joe unhappy seems the test failed").

Along with the dagger or obelisk (†), says Keith Houston, the asterisk is "among the oldest of the textual marks and annotations.

. . . The typographer Robert Bringhurst goes as far as to declare that the asterisk is a staggering five thousand years old, which would make it . . . by far the oldest mark of punctuation of any stripe" (Shady Characters, 2013).

*The word asterisk comes from a Greek word (asteriskos) meaning little star.

Examples and Observations

Asterisks That Point Toward Footnotes
"Where only a handful of footnotes appear in an entire book or, perhaps, just one in an article, symbols may be used instead of numbers. Usually an asterisk is enough, but if more than one note is needed on the same page, the sequence is * † ‡ §."
(The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. University of Chicago Press, 2010)

  • "Note cues for references are generally rendered (1) or 1. Sometimes an asterisk [is used] between parentheses or standing alone . . .." (R.M. Ritter, ed., The Oxford Style Manual. Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • "Consider the asterisk footnote attached to the title of [an] article . . .. 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. It is largely a listing of names, patrons, and gratulants." (Peter Goodrich, "Dicta." On Philosophy in American Law, ed. by Francis J. Mootz. Cambridge University Press, 2009)

    Asterisks That Indicate Omissions

    • "The asterisk (*) qualifies for a place on two counts. First, it varies the dash, or a dot or dots, employed to signify either that a letter or letters are missing from (say) an inscription on stone or from words in an ancient manuscript or even a typescript or a printed book, damaged by fire or water or mould--or that a letter or letters have been intentionally omitted from an objectionable word. Thus:  d**n or d***, for d--n or d---, damn . . . Th** *an fell grievously ill (That man . . .). Second, the asterisk is plurally used either to imply that an interval of time has passed between the matter preceding and the matter following the line, or partial line of asterisks; or to draw attention to an abrupt or otherwise considerable transition" (Eric Partridge, You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies. Hamish Hamilton, 1953)
    • "Rhys Barter was shocked to receive messages calling him a 't***face' and 'a**e'--we can only guess what the asterisks stand for--according to the Sun. Knowles later apologised, saying he had been 'sabotaged' after he left his computer unattended while filming on a building site in Liverpool." (MediaMonkey, "Nick Knowles's Twitter SOS." The Guardian [UK], May 6, 2010)

    Asterisks That Point to Disclaimers

    • "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 . . .."
    • (Remar Sutton, Don't Get Taken Every Time. Penguin, 2007)

    Asterisks That Mark an Ungrammatical Construction

    • "The argument that a sentence can be ungrammatical, but comprehensible holds . . . for sentence (5):

      (5) *That's the woman that we couldn't find out whether anybody likes her.
      Here, restrictions on the selection of a relative pronoun are violated, which render the linguistic string ungrammatical. In spite of that violation, which does not hold for a number of regional and social varieties of English (Milroy and Milroy 1993), sentence (5) is undoubtedly comprehensible."
      (Anita Fetzer, Recontextualizing Context: Grammaticality Meets Appropriateness. John Benjamins, 2004)

      History of the Asterisk and the Dagger

      • "Some of the ancient critical signs survived the centuries and acquired new roles in the printed book; others were not small enough or had shapes which were less suitable for reproduction in cast metal type. Two survived as notae, the asterisk and the obelus in the form of the crux †. The asterisk appears occasionally in early medieval manuscripts, but with even less frequency later. In printed books, it appears with its original function, to mark omissions, but was placed within the text . . ..

        "In printed books the asterisk and obelus were used principally in conjunction with other marks as signes de renvoi to link passages in the text with side-notes and footnotes."
        (M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. University of California Press, 1993)

        -"By the seventeenth century, notes were customarily placed at the bottom of the page and enumerated using an ordered sequence of symbols with the asterisk and dagger [†] at their head. . . .

        "Few other marks have survived quite so long as this pair, and their marriage is as strong as ever. Our texts will continue to be illuminated by little stars and our hyperbole punctured by sobering daggers for years to come."
        (Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. W.W. Norton, 2013)

        The Myth of Roger Maris's Asterisk

        "With the possible exception of Abner Doubleday's invention of baseball, the game's most enduring myth has been Roger Maris' Asterisk. . . .

        "The asterisk supposedly came into being 40 years ago when Maris became the first player to surpass the most famous American sports record of the past century, Babe Ruth's 60 home runs in one season. The asterisk was supposed to accompany Roger Maris' name into the record books to indicate that Maris had broken the record over a 162-game span instead of the 154 schedule that Ruth played.

        "In point of fact, no such asterisk was ever put beside Maris' name in any record book; it never existed."
        (Allen Barra, "The Myth of Maris' Asterisk.", October 3, 2001)

        The Lighter Side of Asterisks

        "I would like to raise a toast this week to Barney, a blue and gold parrot at a wildlife sanctuary in Nuneaton, who during an important civic visit told the local mayoress to 'f*** off.'"

        (Carol Midgley, "I Swear to You, I Can't Stand P***poor Cussers." The Times, April 17, 2008)

        The Asterisk in Walmart's Logo

        "What the two-year, pricey process produced is a logo consisting simply of the name Walmart (with no hyphen this time). They also replaced the old upper-case, blocky lettering with rounder, lower-case letters. . . . Oh, they've also placed an artistic feature at the end of the name. Apparently it's meant to be a star, sunburst, or flower--but it really looks like an asterisk, as though we should look at the fine print before swallowing the idea that a friendlier logo means a friendlier corporation."
        (Jim Hightower, July 18, 2008) 

        Pronunciation: AS-te-RISK