Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Writing 101: The Ampersand, Percent Sign and Other Stuff You Can't Use

As an author, you're free to use words any way you want to paint pictures, evoke emotions and tell your story. But you're not free to use any symbols you want. It's time to find out about the ampersand, the percent sign and the other stuff you can't use.

Symbols vs. Punctuation

The ampersand, the percent sign and the slash actually are not punctuation. That's the first thing you've got to know and that's what you'll need to remember. These parts of the keyboard are actually symbols, not punctuation. And that's why you can't use them.

The ampersand stands for a specific word. It means and. Writing Jimmy & Bobbi is the same as writing Jimmy and Bobbi. However, one is acceptable when you're writing a novel and one is not.

The percent sign is the exact same thing. It is a symbol that stands for a word. If I write 54%, it's the same as writing 54 percent or fifty-four percent. But of course, only one is acceptable in novel form. 

Always be mindful of using symbols rather than words. When you're writing a book, always use the word instead of the symbol. There are only a very few exceptions to this rule: 

  • Proper names: If you're talking about a specific brand or business, like Ben & Jerry's, then you must use the symbol. Always write proper names, business names and brand names in the way they are written, even if it is misspelled or otherwise inaccurate. 
  • Emails and tweets: If you are quoting a text, tweet, email or a handwritten note (as in Harry Potter, for instance), then it's appropriate to use the symbol if the symbol is appearing in that medium. And let's be honest, you're going to see symbols when you're talking about stuff on the Internet. The use of symbols here, in fact, can give your book more realism. 
  • When it's too cumbersome: Let me clear: I'm not a fan of the slash ( / ). I try to avoid it because the thing just looks unwieldy, but I can admit that sometimes actually spelling out slash can be more distracting than the symbol. Every author has to establish their own style when using the slash. Some don't use it at all. I will use it, but usually only outside of dialogue. Other authors use it all the time with no trouble. Use of the slash is really more a style preference; there aren't a lot of hard rules about this one. 

When it comes to using symbols of any kind, there's really just one simple rule: when you can spell it out, spell it out.

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