10 Abbreviations and symbols

10.3 Symbols

Symbols or signs are a shorthand notation signifying a word or concept. They may be special typographical sorts, or letters of the alphabet. Symbols are a frequent feature of scientific and technical writing, but many are also used in everyday contexts, for example to denote copyright (©), currencies (£, $, €), degrees (°), feet and inches (′, ″), and percentages (%).

Do not start a sentence with a symbol: spell out the word or recast the sentence to avoid it:

Sixteen dollars was the price

The price was $16

Section 11 states …

As §11 states, …

Symbols formed from words are normally set close up before or after the things they modify (GeV, Σ+), or set with space either side if standing alone for words or concepts (a W chromosome). Symbols consisting of or including letters of the alphabet never take points. Abstract, purely typographical symbols follow similar rules, being either closed up (° # ¿ » %) or spaced. In coordinates, the symbols of measurement (degrees, seconds, etc.) are set close up to the figure, not the compass point (see 14.1.8):

52° N 15° 7′ 5″ W

Authors should use Unicode-compliant fonts (such as Times New Roman) when creating special sorts in their typescripts (see also 2.5). If there are many special sorts present, authors should create a PDF showing the special sorts correctly and provide it to the publisher.

As an alternative to superior numbers the symbols *, †, ‡, §, ¶, || may be used as reference marks or note cues, in that order. This system is based on print-page conventions and does not translate well into ebooks or online publishing.

The signs + (plus), − (minus), = (equal to), > (‘larger than’, in etymology signifying ‘gives’ or ‘has given’), < (‘smaller than’, in etymology signifying ‘derived from’) are often used in biological and philological works, and not only in those that are scientific or arithmetical in nature. In such instances +, –, =, >, < should not be printed close up, but rather separated by the normal space of the line or a thin space (be consistent). (See also 4.12.4 and 14.6.3.)

The use of symbols can differ between disciplines. For example, in philological works an asterisk (*) prefixed to a word signifies a reconstructed form; in grammatical works it signifies an incorrect or non-standard form. A dagger (†) may signify an obsolete word, or ‘deceased’ when placed before a person’s name.

The distinction between abbreviation and symbol may sometimes be blurred in technical contexts: some forms which are derived directly from a word or words are classed as symbols. Examples are chemical elements such as Ag (silver) from argentum and U from uranium, and forms such as E from energy and m from mass which are used in equations rather than running text. For the use of symbols in science, mathematics, and computing see Chapter 14.

Get more from Oxford Dictionaries

Subscribe to remove adverts and access premium resources

New Hart's Rules