Raising a Red Flag Over the “And” Symbol

What do you think of when you see an ampersand?

The ampersand is the peculiar little symbol—this one: &—that you get when you press Shift and the numeral 7 on your keyboard. Now, obviously, you think of the word “and,” the literal meaning of the symbol. Some people also are reminded of the dollar sign or the capital letter G. A few others think it looks like the treble clef symbol.

Me? I don’t like the ampersand. Never have. It reminds me of the skull and crossbones, the symbol for poison. You might agree with me by the time you finish reading this essay.

“Ampersand.” What a Peculiar Name…

The symbol itself dates back at least to the first century A.D. It represents a stylized joining (called a ligature) of the lower-case E and T, because the Latin word et means “and.”

There’s a charming little story about how the ampersand got its name. You should be warned that the story may be entirely fictional—like legend of George Washington and the cherry tree—and some etymologists (people who study word origins) dispute it as a tissue of lies. Still, it’s a cute tale.

By the time mass education was introduced—or so the story goes—colonial schoolchildren were taught to recite the alphabet from hornbooks printed with 27 characters: our familiar ABCs and the & sign in the last place. It is said that, when children were called upon in turn to practice their letters, the first child would begin by saying, “A, per se, A”—because per se is the Latin phrase meaning “by itself.” The final student would be stuck with that odd symbol that lurked after Z, so he would say something like, “And, per se, and.” Sloppy articulation and the passage of time worked their magic, and by the middle 1800s, the name of the symbol had evolved from “And, per se, and” into “ampersand.”

A competing story seems to strengthen the credibility of this one. In some schoolhouses, children were instead taught to recite beginning with “Ipse A,” meaning “itself A” (Latin has several words conveying the meaning of selfhood). The 27th student got to say “Ipse and,” and sure enough, ipseand is an uncommon but valid synonym for ampersand today.

But enough of the history lesson. Why is the ampersand unsuitable for use in professional websites?

Lazy Writers Love Ampersands

The ampersand was originally created as one of the first stenographers’ marks, so that orations in the Roman Senate could be recorded quickly and later transcribed accurately. It’s shorthand. It’s code. It was never intended to be seen by the public. However, it just proved to be too useful not to be widely adopted.

Today, most usage experts agree that there are only two situations where the ampersand can and should be used in public communications:

  • When the ampersand is part of the formal name of a business, such as Crate & Barrel, AT&T, or Docket & Affidavit, Attorneys at Law
  • When the ampersand is part of some common but informal abbreviation, such as R&D for “research and development” or B&W for “black and white”

Notice that the rules are limited to occasions involving public communications. If you want to lard your Facebook posts or text messages with “&,” go right ahead. But business communications should be a little more formal than that. Nevertheless, when you browse the websites of medical practices, law firms, and small businesses, you will often see ampersands scattered about with abandon. What can this possibly mean?

It means that the person developing content for those webpages thinks that it’s more important to save his own time and effort than to make sure he is communicating clearly with potential customers and clients. We cannot stress this enough: Writing for clients means writing for their convenience, not yours. Using ampersands and other shortcuts sends the message that the writer is just trying to slog through the assignment as quickly and easily as possible. The content produced is going to be second rate, at best: it’s a homework essay rather than a sincere effort to inform a client who desperately needs a deeper understanding.

You’re better than this. Your business is—or ought to be—better than this.

How to Produce Better Website Content

Of course, overusing ampersands are just a symptom. If your content team is tired, unfocused, or overwhelmed with the obligations of the job, you can’t expect things to improve on their own.

That’s precisely where Foster Web Marketing comes in. We know the value a dynamic approach to content writing can add to your business or practice. And we’d love to share our knowledge with you. Give us a call today to begin working on an action plan to rescue your web marketing from its doldrums. You can say goodbye to ampersands at the same time you say hello to success.

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