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Amped on Ampersands

Is there any logogram as elegant as the ampersand?

It's no wonder we're still using this ancient ligature millennia after it first appeared. Thanks to texting and tweeting, it's more popular than ever. After all, why expend three precious characters on "and" when the ampersand can do the job in one?

In these informal communiqués, the ampersand is indeed most welcome. But it's not an all-purpose substitute for "and." In more formal modes, its use is proscribed to only a few circumstances.

We'll get to those, but first, a bit of etymology.

Saying "ampersand" is a pleasure (utter it aloud and you'll see what I mean); figuring out how we arrived at the word is another matter. I consulted various reference sources before landing at this lucid explanation, from the Word Detective (aka newspaper columnist Evan Morris):

It comes from the practice once common in schools of reciting all 26 letters of the alphabet plus the "&" sign, pronounced "and," which was considered part of the alphabet ... Any letter that could also be used as a word in itself ("A," "I," "&" and, at one point, "O") was preceded in the recitation by the Latin phrase "per se" ("by itself") to draw the students' attention to that fact. Thus the end of this daily ritual would go: "X, Y, Z and per se and." This last phrase was routinely slurred to "ampersand" ... and the term crept into common English usage by around 1837. The ampersand symbol itself [is] a stylized rendition of the Latin word "et," meaning, of course, "and."

I routinely see ampersands — which, if you ask me, should be called "aNpersands" — where they don't belong. They don't belong in ad copy or direct mail. They don't belong in fundraising e-mails or annual reports. They don't belong in press releases or company profiles. They don't belong in resumes or cover letters. They don't belong on home pages or even in auto-responders. So where DO they belong?

According to the AP Stylebook: "Use the ampersand when it is part of a company's formal name: Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. The ampersand should not otherwise be used in place of and."

According to the lovely and talented Grammar Girl (aka the lovely and talented Mignon Fogarty, with whom I recently had a close, personal correspondence): "Most style guides recommend using the ampersand when the rest of the name is also an abbreviation (AT&T) and in common expressions (R&D)."

According to Wikipedia: "In both MLA [Modern Language Association] and APA [American Psychological Association] style, the ampersand is used when citing sources in text such as (Jones & Jones, 2005). In the list of references, an ampersand precedes the last author's name when there is more than one author."

According to the Writers Guild of America: "The word 'and' designates that the writers wrote separately and an ampersand ("&") denotes a writing team."

In addition to enjoying the curvilinear look and marvelous mouthfeel of the ampersand, I'm fond of the idea that "&" denotes a more intimate connection than "and." It seems fitting, then, that the ampersand be used sparingly, thus preserving its special status.

So that's all, folks — if you're writing something "official," these are the only proper uses for an ampersand. Then again, clever readers that you are, I bet you have another up your sleeve. If so, please share with the class in the comments below.


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 7th 2011, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Patricia KS (Sackville Canada)
And yet you two remain "Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner." Do I see an ampersand in your future?
Thursday April 7th 2011, 11:46 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
I am most pleased to learn of the Latin involvement in "am 'per s(e)' and." Can you say more, e.g., how and where did it come into use in 1837? keith M.(Kula, HI)
Thursday April 7th 2011, 12:22 PM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
Like &, I would really like a brief analysis on "per se", per se. My mother used per se quite a bit and I thought she was quite eloquent. My wife hears me say per se, quite a bit and now she uses the phrase more.
Thursday April 7th 2011, 12:37 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Interesting article! Thanks!

I think you left out the most important use of ampersand — in referring to couples — e.g., "Mr.& Mrs. John Doe." I think that's always appropriate. Also, I like to throw one in to help a complicated list that contains "ands" on other levels. But my editors always take them out.
Friday April 8th 2011, 6:55 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Esthetically the ampersand is very pleasing to the eye, isn't it; in fact, it looks something like a squatty treble clef symbol that has tipped about 45 degrees counterclockwise. I wonder if there's any connection between the two. I'm always on the lookout for ampersands for my small collection (wood, fabric, various metals, etc.).

While we're on the subject, perhaps someone will enlighten us on the backgrounds of two other "and" symbols. The mathematical plus sign is not extremely intriguing, although maybe there's a fascinating story behind it. But what about the symbol that looks like a reversed number three (or a rounded upper-case letter E) with a vertical line through it - anyone out there know its life story?

Thanks!
The Happy Quibbler

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