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Asterisk (*)

An asterisk is a symbol (*) used to mark printed or written text, typically as a reference to an annotation or to stand for omitted matter.

Understanding the asterisk

An asterisk (*) is a typographical symbol that resembles the shape of a star. Depictions of the asterisk vary according to font and usage, but the most common variants contain five points (san-serif), six points (serif), and eight points (hand-written).

The asterisk is used for many purposes, including censorship, edits, and footnotes. When used as a censoring tool, the asterisk is seen in lieu of the vowel sounds in expletives. For editing and footnote purposes, the asterisk will appear before a word that needs correcting or a sentence that needs elaborating, and the additional information will be placed beside a corresponding asterisk at the bottom of the page. Anything beyond the first edit on a given page will be marked with double, triple, or more asterisks.

Asterisks - Used in editing and censorship

Depending on the publication, an asterisk might be used to block out letters of expletives whenever such words are used by subjects during interviews or within sound bites. Learn more about censorship. Examples include the following:

  • "Recently, a popular star called the paparazzi a 'b***h,' but the actor claims to have actually called her a 'witch.'"
  • "When goaded to say something outrageous,' one celebrity called the host an 'a**,' live on air during tea time."

Some publications—wishing to take a more restrained approach—will mark out every character of an offending word with asterisks, or simply replace such words with the word "expletive" in parentheses (a punctuation mark used to set apart ideas or place a break in the sentence).

History of the asterisk

The asterisk originated in feudal times, when printers needed a symbol for marking birth dates. In its earliest form, the symbol was given seven tear-shaped arms.

The symbol is used in computer science to indicate multiplication and to substitute for various other characters.

In books, a large break between paragraphs is sometimes marked by three spaced-apart asterisks, which are meant to indicate a change in scene, subject, or idea.

On certain online platforms—Usenet, Twitter—where typing features like italics and bold-type are not available, asterisks are often used to emphasize certain words.

Asterisks are sometimes used in lieu of bullets or numbers when listing items on a webpage or document.

On Internet forums that don't make it possible to edit posts once submitted, misspellings and factual errors may be denoted with asterisks next to the errors when quoted in subsequent posts. There's no standardized rule as to whether the asterisk should come before or after the corrected word, as the following examples demonstrate:

I wasn't able to get too

*to

the pet shop today, so my dachund

dachshund*

will have to wait until tomorrow for a new flee

*flea

collar.

In fiction writing, certain expressions (*sigh*, *gush*) may be bound by asterisks to emphasize feelings; this implies that the words are being felt, but not literally stated or enacted by the characters.

In historical linguistics, asterisks are used to mark words that wouldn't have appeared in an original text, such as words that are added to help with the readability of reconstructed pieces of writing. 

In generative linguistics, asterisks are placed next to words that either need to be added or subtracted to a piece of text for grammatical purposes. If a word needs to be added, the mark is placed outside parentheses; if a word needs to be taken out, the mark is placed within parentheses.

  • I went *(to) the hair salon last weekend.
  • I used to be (*an) a mailman.

Writers and editors involved in our research paper writing services are punctuation experts, including extensive knowledge on the asterisk.

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