Tuesday, October 30, 2012

And So Forth (or — On Ampersands)

In the same way I’m intrigued by etymology and the way that we bury the history behind our words, I like to think about punctuation marks. These squiggles convey meaning, but I feel like we rarely stop and think about how they came to signify what they do. Well, Shady Characters considers them, but not everyone reads Shady Characters. (Everyone should, by the way.) I’d actually posted more than once on this subject a long while back, but I’ve decided to revisit it. Today, I’d just like to focus on the ampersand — etymologically and per se and, a mongrel Latin-English phrase more or less meaning “and by itself is and.” It’s pervasive, even when it seems like someone could have found the time to write out and, and even more strangely, it’s readily understood even when it takes on different forms.


All of them slightly different, and almost certainly more varied than you’d expect from letters of the alphabet, but all of them being easily read as meaning “and.” Funny how that works. It’s certainly not the form itself that conveys the meaning, because I doubt that many people realize that the ampersand in all its forms is just a stylized rendering of the Latin word et, meaning “and” — as in et cetera. But it is. In each of the six variations I’ve provided, you can see a basic “e” shape conjoined to a “t” shape, in that order. Only in the last one do aesthetics trump readability, but even then you can see how the symbol is basically shorthand — a simpler way of communicating quickly, in the way that cursive speeds up handwriting.

That’s it. That’s the point: Ampersands are just et, written with the goal of celerity. I just feel like not many people notice this. I just feel like once it’s pointed out to you, it’s something you can’t not notice.


  1. The Roman alphabet used to have a lot of great ligatures, but after the switch to printed text, typesetters slowly got lazy.

  2. I love how ampersands look, but I despise how frequently they are used in place of "and." There are very few occasions where it's correct to use an ampersand. For instance, it would be acceptable if a business or organization decided to use an ampersand in its name, like "Drew & Devon's Punctuation Appreciation Club."

    But then again, if you and I established a formal punctuation appreciation club, I would insist we spelled out the "and."

  3. I used to not be able to make ampersands. Now I can, but I still try to avoid them when possible.