Sep 29, 2017

The double life of the asterisk sign

A small glyph with lots of functions
An article in Time magazine entitled The History of #—and 6 Other Symbols that Rule Twitter and the Web (published 4 years ago, but which I came across this year) talks about how various little known or underused punctuation symbols have gained more prominence after being adopted in computing and, more recently, on the social media. We learn that the at sign, @, was given a new lease of life in 1971 thanks to the creation of email, and the hash/pound sign, #, the formal name of which is octothorpe, was rehabilitated thanks to Twitter.

The word "asterisk" comes from
Latin / Greek words meaning "star"
I wouldn't agree though with the author's take on the asterisk, *, described as "a singularly underemployed mark", which is "rarely seen in print". Was it really a neglected symbol resurrected with the advent of the Internet like the hash (#) and the slash ( / )? Admittedly, the asterisk has more uses today, for example as a wildcard to replace one or more words in a search string in a corpus or on Google. But surely it was and still is used in print. For one thing, its use for 'bleeping out' - replacing letters (especially vowels) in obscenities - comes to mind, e.g. f***. Also, an asterisk placed after a word or sentence is employed to direct the reader to a footnote (followed by a dagger, †, if an asterisk has already been used on a page).

And, of course, in linguistics, * signifies ungrammaticality, in which case it is placed prior to an ill-formed utterance. This use is particularly associated with grammaticality judgment tests, in which participants are asked to judge whether a sentence is wrong in some way or ungrammatical. For example,

I didn't have time to do it.
*I didn't had time to do it.

First used for testing the ability to judge grammaticality in L1, grammaticality judgement tests were adopted by second language acquisition (SLA) researchers, and the asterisk together with them. Of course, since the SLA research was, for many years, slanted towards the acquisition of grammar, particularly morphosyntax, the asterisk is normally used to show that a sentence violates morphological or syntactic rules; however, I've also come across instances when it indicates mis-collocations, for example:

do homework
*make homework

However, in recent years, * has found a new use in everyday communication, which, confusingly, has turned its function in linguistics on its head. The asterisk has started to be used for correcting a previous incorrect or misspelled utterance. I'm sure you've seen it being used - or have used it yourself - to correct a typo or a word that was autocowrecked (incorrectly predicted and ruined by your phone's auto-correct function), as in the following example with the word "day":

This use is particularly common in instant messaging or texting - situations when a mistake cannot be edited.

Why has the asterisk come to mean exactly the opposite? Do you find this use confusing?  Is it one of those examples when a term used in professional jargon means something completely different in everyday language? Take, for example, deductive grammar teaching, when you first give learners the rule and then look at the examples, and Sherlock Holmes's so-called deduction, when he observed and collected bits of information and used them to arrive at a logical conclusion.

Do you use an asterisk to correct yourself? If not, how do you correct your typos when texting? Can you think of a better or more suitable symbol?


  1. Yes I do use it for correctingmyself - since that is current convention and we can't correct what we write on WhatsApp. Also, an asterix before and after a word or phrase on whatsapp makes it *bold*. So I guess we need to pick and choose our battles wisely, (because reallly, how many people out there know that it signifies an INCORRECT sentence when dealing with language teaching..... ;-)

    1. That was quick, Adele! Thanks for the comment.
      You reckon, I'm tilting at windmills then? :)

  2. That's interesting. I have always used = when I correct my mistakes/typos in texts. To me it's always seemed clearest. For example:

    I never use an as the risk for correction.
    as the risk = asterisk

    1. I knew I wasn't the only one! Thank you, Tyson.
      That's exactly what I do. It takes a bit more time but it's certainly clearer.

  3. Guilty as charged. I had never really given it much thought. Nice observation, Leo.

    1. Arrest this man now!

      Thanks for stopping by, Phil

  4. I use it. I think it's clear. I've always thought of it like a footnote - in this case correcting/amending something from the original text.

    1. Yes, the footnote explanation sounds plausible (although there is no asterisk after the word that is being corrected)

  5. I always use an asterisk to correct myself.
    TBH, never knew is signifies an incorrect sentence.
    Thanks for clearing that out :)

  6. Superb kind of work by the author as on this particular topic people needs more precise information and special attention to it.Thanks a lot.


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