How to Use an Asterisk
Should you use an asterisk or other footnote symbol? Find out here.
Today we’re talking about the asterisk: how you use it and how it differs from other footnote symbols.
What Is An Asterisk?
The asterisk is the little star symbol above the “8” key on your keyboard. The word comes from a Greek word meaning “ little star.” (1) In the past, asterisks were used to show the omission of a letter or a passage in time, but that role has largely been taken over by the ellipsis.
It’s also commonly mispronounced. The right pronunciation is “aste-risk.” You’ve probably heard it pronounced like “aste-rix” or “aste-rick,” but it’s “aste-risk.” (2)
How to Use An Asterisk
When you use the asterisk as a footnote symbol, it shows that you are planning to comment on something at the bottom of the page. You’ve made a promise, so you’d better keep it. The first rule for using asterisks is if you use one, make sure the reference starts at the bottom of the same page.
Unfortunately often, advertisements will have an asterisk that doesn’t refer to anything on the page. It leaves you wondering what the restrictions are. If the ad reads Zombie Repellant, 20% off,* and the asterisk refers to nothing, you wonder whether the discount only applies on certain days or for certain people. Does the discount apply if the zombie apocalypse has already begun? Are zombies themselves excluded from the offer?
Chuck Tomasi pointed out that Rich Hall, author of the Sniglets books, made up a name for the feeling you get when you encounter an orphan apostrophe: asterexasperation. And here’s a little-known piece of trivia. Arnie Ten, the artist who drew the illustrations in the Sniglets books, was also the artist for the first two Grammar Girl books. He brought Squiggly, the snail, and the peeves to life, so to speak.
Using an Asterisk as a Footnote Symbol
So, do asterisks differ from other footnote symbols, like numbers or letters? Yes. The Chicago Manual of Style says to use asterisks if you have just a handful of references on which you’re planning to comment. (2) You can also use asterisks when you need to avoid using numbers or letters for indicating footnotes.
However, if you have more than one comment on a single page, you typically use a set of symbols in a specific order. One common sequence is to start with the asterisk and continue with the dagger, double dagger, section mark, parallels, and number sign. If you need more symbols, you start over in the sequence and double each symbol; for example, double asterisk, double dagger, double double dagger, and so on. (3) Note that the order and symbols can vary from style guide to style guide, so be sure to check the specific symbols and order for whatever style you follow.
It’s also important to note that the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) says not to use the asterisk in journalism writing because the symbol may not be seen by AP computers or received by newspapers. (3)
Asterisks and Other Punctuation Marks
When you’re placing an asterisk in a sentence, you may wonder where it goes relative to other punctuation marks. Does it go before or after a dash, for example? Well, it turns out the dash is an exception: according to the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, the asterisk goes before the dash, but after every other punctuation mark.
The asterisk used to be used to omit letters, and there’s at least one place where that practice survives: asterisks can replace letters in swear words you want to sanitize. For example, you could leave the first letter but use asterisks to replace the missing letters, leaving the reader to figure out what the word is: d***. You could also use a grawlix, which is the term cartoonist Mort Walker gave to the string of characters (including the asterisk) that appear in comic books when someone swears.
To summarize, the asterisk is a little star symbol which can be used to indicate a footnote or be used to edit swear words in informal text. A footnote should begin on the bottom of the same page on which the asterisk or other footnote symbol appears. Unlike superscript numbers or letters, the asterisk can be used alone when you need only a handful of footnotes in an article or story.
Thanks to Ashley Dodge for editorial assistance.
Swear Words in Text, http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/swearing-text-comics.aspx
The Asterisk, http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/asterisk.aspx
Strumpf, M. and Douglas, A. The Grammar Bible. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004, p. 450.
Garner, B. A. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009, p. 72.
The Chicago Manual of Style. Fourteenth Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p.666.
The Associated Press Stylebook. New York: Basic Books, 2011, p. 23.