Today's topic is the asterisk — Barry Bonds's least favorite punctuation mark.
Today's topic is the asterisk.
Why? Because Barry Bonds just broke the record for number of home runs in one season* and people are talking about putting an asterisk next to his name in the record book because of the steroid controversy surrounding his career (1, 2). It's a punctuation-related news story, and those come about so rarely I just couldn't pass it up.
What Is an Asterisk?
The asterisk is that little star above the “8” key on your keyboard, and the word asterisk actually comes from the Latin and Greek words for “little star” (3). Asterisk can also be used as a verb to mean that you've marked something with the little star; for example, some sports writers want the baseball commissioner to asterisk Barry Bonds's record.
I had a little bit of hesitation about doing this episode because the pronunciation is so tricky. It's pronounced aste-risk. Aste-risk. It's common to hear people call it aste-rick or aste-rix, but the correct pronunciation is aste-risk (4).
How to Use an Asterisk
My first rule for using an asterisk is to always make sure it refers to something at the bottom of the page. It makes me crazy when ads have an asterisk next to some offer, and then you can't find what it means. More than once I've seen something such as Jack hammers, 20% off*, and then nothing else on the page to indicate what the asterisk means. Does it mean I get 20% off only if it is a Sunday and my name is Squiggly? I hate that!
That's how an asterisk is used these days—you place it after something you want to comment on or qualify. Historically, asterisks were also used to show that something was omitted or that there was a passage of time, but that use has been largely taken over by the ellipsis (5). Today, the asterisk is for commenting, especially when you need to avoid letters or numbers.
For example, the Chicago Manual of Style wisely notes that when you add comments to mathematical or chemical equations, you should use symbols to keep people from confusing your comment marks as part of the equations. You wouldn't want readers thinking your second comment note means to square the equation!