If you’ve spent any time at all on social media, you have seen posts where symbols are used in place of words. Some social media platforms wouldn’t even be able to function without certain symbols, especially # and @. Text messages also tend to be rife with symbols and abbreviations.
Confusion about when, where, and how to use certain symbols is a common writing problem among our TextRanch customers. This is true of native English speakers as well as those who speak English as a second (or third) language. Therefore, let’s take a look at some of the most frequently used–and misused–symbols.
You may not be familiar with the word “ampersand”, but you probably see this symbol multiple times every day in place of “and”. Here are some examples:
I need the documents from 2019 & 2020.
Juan is bringing pizza & beer to the party.
We’re having a meeting with Margo & her team.
His book will be published by Simon & Schuster.
The first three sentences are fine for a casual email or text message. However, an ampersand is generally not appropriate for academic papers or formal messages. It also doesn’t work for longer pieces of writing, as the symbol disrupts the flow of the text.
One major exception is when the ampersand is part of the name of a business, firm, or brand, as is the case with Simon & Schuster in the fourth example above. If you see an ampersand in a company’s official communications, then you should use it. To put it another way, if a law firm’s official letterhead or website says Jackson & Jackson, then that is the way you should write it. However, if the firm’s name is written as Jackson and Jackson, then use the word “and”, not an ampersand.
The “at” symbol (@)
This symbol is usually seen as part of an email address, such as Lilly@TextRanch.com. You can use this symbol this way in any formal or informal context. It would be tough to give out an email address without it!
What you want to avoid is using @ in place of the word “at” in most business or academic contexts. Sentences such as “I will see you @ the meeting” and “The materials are @ the building site” are too casual, unless you are sending a very brief text message to someone you know well.
Number/hashtag/pound symbol (#)
The hashtag is used to help you find or create social media content that is related to a particular topic. The symbol goes first, followed by whatever words you are using. It can be the name of a company, a person, a slogan, a TV show, or a news event.
Outside of social media, hashtags are rarely used, unless you are discussing your company’s social media campaign or something of that nature. Below is an example of what this might look like in a “business casual” email.
Please use the hashtag #ValentinesDay on social media to help promote our new line of fragrances. We want to emphasize how they will make a great gift.
The # symbol can also stand for the word “number”. It is often seen in business emails that include order numbers, ID numbers, and reference numbers. Here is an example of how this would look embedded in a sentence:
We need invoices for the following orders: #12345, #54321, and #67890.
One problem we sometimes see at TextRanch is when customers put the # symbol after the number, rather than before it, so be sure that your # is in the right place. Also, unless you are sending a casual–and brief–text message avoid using the symbol in a sentence where you would normally use the word “number”.
A note on context
The above guidelines are for those who are using symbols within ordinary English sentences or phrases. What if you are writing a business report or academic paper that includes statistics, mathematical formulas, tables, charts, or graphs? If that’s the case, look at similar works that were written by professionals in your field, or consult a relevant style guide. This should help you determine when to use symbols and when to use words.
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