Words at work

– 4 min read

The ampersand: history, meaning, and how to use it

Jessica Malnik

Jessica Malnik

Did you know an ampersand is a ligature for the word “et“, which is Latin and French for and? 🤯

Researching the history of the ampersand is full of fascinating facts like this one, that will impress even your nerdiest friends at your next trivia night.

But what changed? Why did it fall out of favor? And when should we use the & symbol today?

In this post, we’ll cover the meaning of the ampersand symbol, its history, and examples of how to use it in your writing. But first, what is it?

What is an ampersand?

An ampersand is a sign for the word and. It’s written or typed as the symbol &. It’s a modification of the term “and per se and,” which has Latin origins.

The ampersand can indicate that the listed items are grouped together as part of a name. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. It can still be used to symbolize and in any type of writing. You’ll see it most often in informal writing.

Here’s a little-known fact about the ampersand: it used to be part of the alphabet!

When was ampersand dropped from the alphabet?

The late 18th century was the first known appearance of an ampersand in the English language. However, its roots go further back than that. In the Middle Ages, single letters were used as full words when combined with the phrase “per se.” For instance, “I per se” meaning “by itself.”

The symbol & was combined with “per se” in this fashion. It would eventually evolve into “and per se and.” This was shortened into the word we know and use today, “ampersand.”

It was in the early 1800s when people started seeing & added to the end of the English alphabet; you’ll find it in old-school books from the period. Adding the ampersand as the 27th item  ofthe alphabet and pronouncing it like this — “W, X, Y, Z, and per se” — made it so the person reciting it meant, “W, X, Y, Z, and by itself and.” It would have been confusing to say, “W, X, Y, Z, and.”

So when did the 27 characters in the early English alphabet drop to the 26 letters we know today? There wasn’t a specific date that it was dropped, and some schools taught it longer than others. By the end of the 19th century, most English alphabets in use phased out the & symbol.

Now that you know the history of the ampersand, here’s how it applies to your writing and how you should use it.

When to use the ampersand symbol

The ampersand symbol is often used in the names of companies or abbreviations. You may also see it in a formula, citation, abridged text, or even computer code. However, ampersands aren’t restricted to formal or technical writing.

The symbol is also used often in informal writing. For example, an author might use it to save a few characters when drafting a tweet promoting their latest book.

Note: Keep in mind that you can’t always use the & symbol to replace the word “and.”

Here are some examples of correct and incorrect uses of the ampersand symbol.

How to use ampersands with commas

Heard of the Oxford comma? It’s the comma that comes at the end of a series. It’s also known as the serial comma. Ampersands should never be used with an Oxford comma.

Example 1

Correct: Angela added oregano, basil, and thyme. Incorrect: Saul chopped the potatoes, carrot, & celery.

Example 2

Correct: Steve, Kyle & Lexi went to the store. Incorrect: Blue, green, & purple are Lucy’s favorite colors.

Example 3

Correct: The same shirt is available in pink, green, blue, red & cream. Incorrect: Sandy’s backpack has orange, teal, blue,& yellow spots.

Ampersands with company names

The same rule with the Oxford comma applies to company names. Here’s an example:

Example 4

Correct: Jennifer is an attorney at Dean, Lovett & Smith. Incorrect: Tyler was waiting in front of the Red, White, & Blue Co. building.

Here’s another example of how to use an ampersand correctly in a company name:

Example 5

Correct: She loves shopping at Garage & Shed. Incorrect: She has a few clients at Doctor, &, Dentist.

Example 6

Correct: Pots, Pans & Griddles is the main supplier for the restaurant. Incorrect: Dogs and & Cats Company donates pet food to the shelter.

Ampersands with spacing

Using an ampersand requires proper spacing. There should be a space on either side of the ampersand, just like it’s a word. However, if it’s an abbreviation, then you don’t need to add a space between the letters. Here are a couple of examples.

Example 7

Correct: She bought her costume at Bugs, Creatures & Aliens. Incorrect: He works for Yarn, Thread&Bobs.

Example 8

Correct: Larry met his partner in the lobby of AB&C. Incorrect: The coffee shop’s website was designed by EF &G.

Example 9

Correct: Tina, Sadie & Carrie met at the mall. Incorrect: The kids ran past the jungle gym, monkey bars,&swings.

Example 10

Correct: She titled her short story “High School: Stories of Friendship, Hope & Lessons.” Incorrect: His paper was called, “The Study of Lions,Tigers,&Bears.”

Ampersands as abbreviations

Sometimes you’ll see ampersands used in abbreviations. In the case of abbreviations like the ones below, you wouldn’t need a space between the ampersand the abbreviation. Here are a couple of examples.

Example 11

Correct: B&B (short for bed and breakfast) Incorrect: R& R (short for rest and relaxation)

Example #12

Correct: R&D (short for research and development) Incorrect: Q & A (short for questions and answers)

Whenever you use the ampersand symbol, pay attention to the spacing and commas. 

Most importantly, check the writing style guide you follow (AP, APA, Chicago Style, etc.) to make sure the ampersand is allowed.

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