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*See Below for Proper Asterisk Usage

  • Asterisks are commonly used to refer you to additional information, disclaimers, or fine print at the bottom of a page. 
  • They may also censor swear words.

The asterisk is the tiny star (*) icon that shares its home with the number 8 on a standard keyboard’s number row. You must press the “8” key while holding down SHIFT to access it, as it is a secondary option.

You may be surprised that it is one of the oldest symbols in existence, but you also may not care – so let’s get straight to the point.

While there may be some unconventional uses of the asterisk, there are three that you can expect to find with some degree of regularity. As you are likely on a quest to master asterisk usage, we will begin there.

Graphic illustrating when to use an asterisk. An asterisk may be used to censor swear words, or refer you to additional information, disclaimers, or find print.

An Asterisk is Useful to Reference Footnotes

The primary purpose is to call attention to footnotes located at the bottom of pages within the text (like where the feet would be if a page had feet).

This information is not provided within the related paragraph because it usually indicates bonus information*, controversy, an explanation, a definition, or an interesting tidbit of knowledge about the word or phrase earmarked with an asterisk.

Notice an asterisk following “bonus information” in the previous paragraph. When you see that symbol, look down at the bottom of the page.

Alternately, you may see a footnote represented as a small number (Superscript 1) following the word or phrase. This circumstance is most often found in academic research papers, articles, or books because several official writing styles use footnotes to cite their information sources. When you see a small number symbol, you also need to look at the bottom of the page.

Go ahead, check it out.

* Did you know asterisks can also replace the x in a multiplication problem? 4 x 3 = 4 * 3.

1 The reason numbers are used instead of an asterisk is because there are often many footnotes used in academic texts. Therefore, numbering them helps prevent confusion, as a series of asterisks makes it difficult to follow which information goes with which topic.

How the F*** do I Use an Asterisk?

Another widespread use for the asterisk is to censor some rather salty language. For example, if a source is quoting spoken dialogue and the speaker swore, you can use asterisks to substitute for letters to soften the blow for sensitive ears (eyes?).

This little trick means you can sometimes get away with swearing without really swearing because you rely on the reader’s brain to fill in the missing letter(s).

Brains are excellent about doing that. Most people can even read sentences written backward or upside down with no problem whatsoever or even if most of the letters in each word are missing or rearranged*.

Here are some examples:

“Well, s**t, I dropped my cake,” Martha lamented.

Notice in this situation, the first and last letters remain. That is helpful to easily infer what exact swear word Martha was using in this situation.

“What the **** was that noise?” cried Leon, pulling the blanket over his head.

Here, the reader has to infer based on the context of the sentence to understand what Leon may have said.

I bet you can figure it out.

In the header title, I allowed the first letter but finished the word with three asterisks. This form may prove less offensive to readers than having the first and last letter, but the safest bet, if you feel it necessary to include a censored swear word, is to go with all asterisks.

Remember that when using the asterisks, group them all in a row; otherwise, it can be unnecessarily complicated and unusual.

What, in the name of a*ples*uce, is going on here?

See? That is an awkward use of asterisks. However, you can probably see now that I haven’t been swearing at all – you just have a dirty mind.

Yeah, that’s right. Earlier, when Martha dropped her cake, she said, “Oh, spit.”

Shame on you.

*It’s fun! Research this a little bit and try it out. What else do you have to do? After all, you’re reading about grammar. C’mon.

The Fine Print

Businesses sometimes make use of asterisks to be deceptive. An asterisk, much like its use as a footnote, can indicate a disclaimer or fine print.

While they may claim that they did not have space to include the information within the text, a quick look at the info strategically placed at the bottom or end in microscopic print leaves little doubt that they were hoping you were too lazy to explore the asterisk further.

Often exceptions to rules, situations that void contracts, additional requirements for deals, clarification as to the truth of certain statements, and similar information hide in this very difficult-to-read text hidden outside the general reading.

Then, when that fantastic sale does not ring up at the register, and you ask why (if you even notice), the clerk may point you to the fine print, where it “clearly” states an additional requirement before the sale price becomes valid (like that you must purchase an extra $20 worth of product along with the sale item).

The bottom line is: keep an eye out for asterisks and make sure to read the fine print because if you do not, you are more than likely going to be disappointed (or maybe dead, if it relates to medication).

Video Explanation

For a deeper look, please watch this video:

Related: Now learn about the “and” symbol – the Amersand.


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By James Smith

Described as an "English Guru," James Smith holds a Master's degree in English from Arkansas Tech University, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with a minor in ESL. James is a sought after writer and editor with university teaching experience.

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