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What’s That Symbol Called? An Essential Guide to Special Font Characters

Ever read a webpage or book and ask yourself, “What special symbol am I looking at?” Special font characters abound on both new and old reading platforms. They’ve likely confused you, even though you’ve come across them numerous times in your reading lifetime.

Featuring Graphic Ampersands for Logos Kit by New Tropical Design

Marc Schenker August 22, 2021 · 13 min read

Instead of just ignoring them, as many readers perhaps do, we want to explore these characters to help you make sense of them. Understanding what you’re reading and its purpose in the written word will increase your enjoyment and comprehension of the text. This applies both to readability and legibility.

Here’s a roundup of some font characters you’ve come across, which need to be clarified.

Ampersand

The ampersand stands for the conjunction “and.” It is also known as the and sign. A logogram or logograph—a grapheme or written character representing a word—an ampersand came from Latin. The Latin ligature et gave birth to the ampersand.  A ligature is two or more graphemes or letters that form a single glyph; et is Latin for and.

Over time, it’s gone through an evolution in appearance. Back in the 1st Century AD, the ampersand as we know it today started out as an Old Roman cursive script, characterized by the capital E and T were joined together to form one letter. Today, the glyph is written in numerous ways, but still looks like a script:

  • A lowercase epsilon that’s superimposed via a vertical line
  • An epsilon that has a vertical line or dot above and below
  • A basic plus sign with an additional loop in one quadrant

This symbol is one of the most common that you’ll encounter in the written language. It’s also common in marketing and branding, as it’s part of the names of many famous brands:

  • Tiffany & Co.
  • Johnson & Johnson (J&J)
  • Dolce & Gabbana
  • AT&T

Dieresis

The dieresis, sometimes spelled diaeresis, is also known as the trema. It is a diacritic or a mark that’s added onto a letter or a basic glyph. You’ve seen the dieresis numerous times; it’s two dots side-by-side that’s typically put on top of a vowel. Don’t mistake it for the umlaut, which is a similar but entirely different mark.

It’s important to note that this glyph is used in a specific phonological way. It stands for the sandhi or hiatus, which is when you pronounce a vowel independently from an adjacent vowel. This is in contrast to pronouncing a vowel as part of a diphthong or gliding vowel, where there’s a mix of two, adjacent vowel sounds right in the same syllable.

An example of the dieresis in action is the alternate spelling of the word “naive,” when it’s spelled “naïve.”

Historically, this diacritic evolved from the Greek and Latin alphabets. During the Hellenistic period, it was used to set apart certain letters from a preceding vowel sound.

Umlaut

The umlaut, also known as the Germanic umlaut, is also a diacritic composed of two dots placed over a letter, normally a vowel. The key difference between this mark and the dieresis is that the umlaut produces a sound change. This means that a back vowel is pronounced more like a front vowel. This phenomenon is mainly found in German-based languages.

It’s been around since at least 750, when the Old High German was spoken, but it continued developing as a sound well past 1350, when the Middle High German was in use.

Here’s a typical example of an umlaut in action: Schröder. However, if you elect not to use the umlaut, then the name would be spelled Schroeder. This follows the rule that eliminating an umlaut requires the addition of an “e” after the initial vowel in the word.

Em Dash

You’ve come across the em dash too many times to count during your reading life, whether on the web or in print. We’re willing to bet that you’ve also written an em dash—or at least what you thought was the em dash!—in an email, letter, or maybe even a social media post. In fact, there can be great confusion when incorporating dashes in reading and writing.

The em dash, also known as the mutton dash or em rule, refers to the em. An em is simply a unit of measurement within the field of typography. It’s equal to the specific point size in any given typeface. For example, one em in an 18-point typeface equals 18 points. Therefore, an em dash doesn’t have a fixed size; it actually changes based on the specified font size.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

This dash has a multitude of uses, such as:

  • In place of a colon or parentheses
  • The attribution of a quote
  • For self-interruption of speech
  • To interrupt another speaker
  • To set off a definition or summary
  • To signal a sudden change in thought

On a Mac keyboard, pressing down on Shift, Option, and the Hyphen key will produce the em dash —.

En Dash

Now, on to the en dash. We can’t have a breakdown of special font characters like the em dash without including the en dash. The en dash is also a typographic unit of measure. It’s always half the width of the em dash. This holds true no matter what typeface it’s being used in. For instance, if an 18-point font, the en dash is going to be just 9 points. However, there’s an exception in some modern fonts, where this dash can be a little longer than half of an em dash.

Here’s a collection of punctuation marks that celebrate unique characters:

Also called the nut dash or en rule, it sometimes replaces the em dash. When you do use the en dash in place of the em dash, be sure to leave spaces on either side of it (which you wouldn’t do when using the em dash in writing).

The most common uses of the en dash are:

  • For inclusive ranges, such as the ends of a range or even alternatives (for example, 1982–1983)
  • As a substitute of a hyphen, provided that its use is in a compound where one of the joined elements is more complicated than just one word
  • For rhetorical pauses
  • As a substitute for parentheses or a comma
  • For interruptions

On a Mac, pressing down on Option and the Hyphen key will create the en dash –.

Hyphen

The hyphen is a punctuation mark that’s always confused with the aforementioned dashes and wrongly substituted for them. The hyphen helps you to separate syllables of the same word as well as to join disparate words. Hyphenation means you’re using a shorter dash than some of the other common ones like the:

  • Em dash
  • En dash
  • Horizontal bar (a quotation dash meant to introduce quoted words)
Image Credit: Wikipedia

Some of the confusion between the hyphen and other dashes lies in their duplicate use. For example, hyphens can be substituted for the en dash in hyphenated compounds.

A hyphenated word like daughter-in-law illustrates a common use for this mark.

Tilde

With its curves, the tilde is a grapheme or the tiniest, usable unit in a writing system. It has numerous uses, and you’ve seen it hundreds of times during your reading life. Its origins lie in the Portuguese and Spanish languages; these languages received it from the Latin titulus, which translates to either “superscription” or “title.” The tilde roughly translates to mean “approximately” or “about.”

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Depending on the language you’re speaking, it’s also put on top of a character to denote a change in pronunciation. For instance, in Vietnamese, it’s read as a creaky rising tone; in Spanish and Basque languages, the tilde over a letter prompts the speaker to read the letter as a palatal nasal consonant.

Caret

A grapheme—the smallest, usable unit in a writing system—the caret is an extended and inverted symbol used in typography and proofreading. Its primary function is to tell a proofreader that extra material must be included at a certain point in the text. Typically, it’s a phrase, word, or punctuation mark that needs to be inserted in the text if you come across a caret.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

In general, this mark is written beneath the line of text in a document. However, the additional element that needs to go into the text is written inside the caret, above the line, or within the margin.

The origins of the caret are Latin, where it’s spelled the same way. Etymologically, the caret means “to be free from,” or “to lack.”

Ellipsis

If you want to create a sense of drama with a well-placed pause in your writing, then the ellipsis is your technique of choice. This is why this glyph is sometimes called a suspension point, periods of ellipsis, points of ellipsis, or even just dot-dot-dot.

You’ll recognize this mark by its simple series of three dots, appearing consecutively on the same line.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Its uses are numerous. Use the ellipsis to indicate:

  • An unfinished thought
  • A short pause
  • A leading statement
  • An unexpected silence
  • An echoing voice

Here’s an interesting and little-known factoid: If you write the ellipsis at the very end of your sentence to symbolize the trailing off of speech or thought, then you’ve produced an aposiopesis. This is when you end a sentence with the intent to let your readers fill in the meaning. This is a technique that may be used to denote sadness or even longing for something.

Superscript

A superscript is smaller in size than the rest of your text on a line. As far as special font characters go, it can either be a letter or a number, which you set a little above the line of type you’re working with. There are many uses of this character, which include scientific formulas, math expressions, and specifications of both isotopes and chemical compounds.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

When you look at a superscript, it’s usually bolder than a normal symbol. This is because typeface designers have to set it to be heavier, either bold or medium in typeface weight than an ordinary, smaller letter would be. The purpose of this strategy is to draw the eye of the reader to its importance.

Superscripts can either extend above the ascender line of a character or they may not.

Subscript

A subscript is the counterpart to the superscript that we discussed above. It’s a mark that you’ll find below the baseline of a line of type. Like a superscript, it’s also used in a range of things, like math expressions, formulas, and chemical compound and isotope specifications.

A chemical formula is likely where you’ve seen the best example of a subscript. Take glucose’s chemical formula, which is C6H12O6.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Subscripts can be aligned with the baseline, just as they can be dropped beneath the baseline. Subscripts that are aligned with the baseline are relatively rare; the only use they have is in the denominators of diagonal fractions.

Tittle

Also going by the name of a superscript dot, the tittle is a small, distinguishing diacritic (a glyph added onto a letter). You’ll usually find this mark on top of the lowercase “i” or “j.” This is the case most commonly in the English language. However, a tittle may also appear over other letters in different languages.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

For instance, the modern Turkish language actually relies on either the absence or presence of this tittle to distinguish two distinct letters.

Bracket

A bracket can get complicated, too. There are numerous kinds of brackets. Usually used in symmetrical pairs, brackets are forward- or back-facing punctuation marks that isolate a piece of data or copy from its environment.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Chevrons, a type of bracket, were the first brackets to show up in the English language. Dutch Christian scholar and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus essentially coined the rounded parentheses by giving them the name of lunula, after the shape of the crescent moon.

The first kind of brackets are the parentheses or rounded brackets. They usually contain some adjunctive elements that separate a piece of information from the main point or otherwise provide additional clarification.

The next type of brackets are the square brackets. These punctuation marks are frequently employed to set aside explanatory material or denote where an original word was taken out of the original material by someone other than the author. These square brackets also show up in proofreading (to the sides of the text) as markers of changes within indentation.

Third, we have curly brackets, which have a multitude of different names:

  • Curly braces
  • French brackets
  • Definite brackets
  • M Braces
  • Scottish brackets
  • Squiggly parentheses

What’s interesting about these marks is that they, for the most part, are used rarely in formal writing. That’s likely because they have no widely (read: standardized) accepted use. They may be used to denote where words or entire sentences should be read as an entire group.

Finally, we get to angle brackets—the aforementioned chevrons. These chevrons also go by the names of brokets, broken brackets, tuples, or diamond brackets. The purpose of these marks is to symbolize words that characters think instead of outright speak.

In another example, in comic books, these angle brackets are used for something called a notional translation. That means that comic book characters are speaking a language that is said to have been translated from another language. However, the way it appears to readers is still within their native language. Hence, it’s only a notional, as opposed to a real translation. This is communicated to readers when text is placed within these chevrons.

Exclamation Mark

Whenever you want to stress something particularly urgent or important, you go with the exclamation mark or point. Indicate passionate feelings or emotions when you use this mark right after an interjection or exclamation. Like a period, it can also signal the end of a sentence, as in “Stop in the name of love!”

Other times, you’ll encounter an exclamation mark that has no writing before or after it, when it is said to be bare. In such circumstances, the exclamation mark will be used as a warning sign.

Additional uses include:

  • Symbolizing click consonants in Southern and East African languages
  • Logical negation in computer languages
  • Symbolizing factorial operation in math

Slash

One of the most common pieces of punctuation you’ll ever encounter, the slash is simple and has many uses. It is a slanting, oblique line that was historically used to mark commas and periods. Nowadays, the slash represents inclusivity or exclusivity, fractions, divisions, and calendar date separations. Of course, you’ll also notice the slash in the URLs of many websites, particularly when navigating to webpages within the site—for example, creativemarket.com/blog.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

When the slash goes in the opposite direction, it’s referred to as a backlash.

In the distant past, a slash was a variation of a vertical stroke and a dash.

On your Mac, you’ll find that it has its own key and looks like this: /.

Making Sense of These Special Font Characters

The irony is that you’ve been reading and writing your whole life while only having a passing knowledge of some of these punctuation marks. To be sure, some are obscure and others downright confusing. Still, others you’ve used regularly, but perhaps not always in the proper way.

With our guide to this esoteric punctuation, we hope you’re now more empowered than ever to recognize these marks as you come across them when you read. You also now have the knowledge to properly use them in writing.

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Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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