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.

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New Hart's Rules


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