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Five weird typographical symbols – Quick Quiz answers

We asked how much you know about some of the rarer printer’s characters. Here are the answers:

  1. What’s this called?
    It’s a pilcrow. It was used to designate the start of a new paragraph in a block of text, before the modern conventions of leaving a blank space or indenting the text were introduced. (Proofreaders still use it today to indicate where a paragraph break needs to be inserted.)
  2. Here are two punctuation marks: / and One of these marks is a slash; the other is a solidus. Which is which, and what’s the difference?
    The first of the two is the slash, and generally represents a choice between alternatives (eg “male/female”, “yes/no”). It can also represent a line break in quotations of poetry when presented in a prose paragraph.
    The solidus indicates a fraction or a division, and is used with superscript and subscript numerals, like this: 123456. It’s also the correct symbol to use in representing sums of money in shillings and pence, eg 2 ⁄ 6 for two shillings and sixpence, or 10 ⁄ – for ten shillings. As you see, it’s inclined a little further away from the perpendicular than the slash is.
  3. This mark and others like it are called fleurons. Why should you be very cautious about how you use this particular one?
    Because it indicates a legally binding signature. Fleurons were typically used, like pilcrows, as paragraph indicators in body text – but could also be used to fill in the space between paragraphs, at the beginning of paragraphs, or just for decoration. The one above’s technically known in the Unicode manual as a Reversed Rotated Floral Heart Bullet.
  4. What does the symbol stand for?
    It represents the word “and” in the Tironian notes system of shorthand reputedly established by Cicero’s scribe Marcus Tullius Tiro. Popular in mediæval times, Tironian notes have now all but died out, but the ⁊ (which represented et — the sound and the Latin word meaning “and”) survives, and is still used in Irish where English uses the ampersand (&). Here’s the full sign – a “Pay & Display” parking sign in Dublin – so you can see it in action:
    The Tironian et on a pay-and-display sign in Dublin
  5. Where would you be most likely to see an obelus?
    In a division sum – it’s the technical term for the division sign ÷. It started out as a proofreader’s mark to indicate text of doubtful authenticity, then evolved to become a subtraction sign (which it still is in Norway, apparently). Its first use as a division sign was in 1659.

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