The ampersand, despite having a charm and grace all of its own, is not welcome in all situations. Find out when to use an ampersand or ‘and’.
Happy World Ampersand Day! Yes, 8 September is the day that we officially celebrate the interesting curly symbol that is the ampersand.
This article will tell you how the name for the symbol came about, why it’s best avoided in most scenarios, and the situations in which you may be forgiven for using it (or are even required to do so).
Brief history of the ampersand
If you’re a language lover, you’ll find this fascinating! I’ll be boring my next unfortunate dinner guests with this.
The ampersand symbol (at least, a version of it) has been used since the days of the Roman Empire, but the name we know it by is far more recent.
The word ‘ampersand’ comes from a time – 1800s – when the symbol ‘&’ was considered the 27th letter of the alphabet. When school children recited the alphabet, any letter that was also a word in its own right (A, I, O and &) would be said as follows: “A per se A”, meaning “A by itself A”. The ‘letter’ that we now know as the ampersand was only known by ‘and’ at the time, so it would be recited as follows: “and per se and”. You can see how, over time, fast recitation would eventually lead to “ampersand”.
Right, history lesson over. (If you want more, Wikipedia’s page on the ampersand is your next port of call.) Let’s take a look at why the ampersand isn’t welcome as a substitute for ‘and’ in all situations.
Reasons not to use ampersands
You may not have given this much thought, or you may assume that ‘&’ and ‘and’ are interchangeable in every scenario. Or, you may be vaguely aware of not seeing ‘&’ much in formal writing, but are not sure why. Are there even guidelines around when to use ‘&’ and when to avoid it?
Yes, there are!
The basic rule of thumb is to avoid using it apart from specific scenarios that we’ll look at in a minute. But why not just use it wherever ‘and’ is needed? After all, it means the same thing, it’s shorter and it looks more attractive!
In formal writing, an ampersand in the main body of the text (i.e. not headings and other specific places as detailed later in this post) looks informal, maybe even lazy.
It’s fine to use it in rough notes, messages to friends and other informal writing, but in a business report, marketing material (depending on the tone you’re striking) or an email to your boss? Noooo.
The ampersand is not universally understood. Some of your readers may struggle to make sense of the symbol.The ampersand is not universally understood. Some of your readers may struggle to make sense of it. – From article: Ampersand (&) or and? Click To Tweet
For example, if you’re writing for the web, your visually impaired visitors may be using text-to-speech software (screen reader) that can only recognise ampersands if they’re coded in a particular way in HTML. Best to use ‘and’, which is easily understood by all screen readers.
Readers with certain cognitive impairments may find it takes a lot of effort to decipher the ampersand, whereas a spelt-out word like ‘and’ doesn’t pose the same problem.
When writing for the web, your aim is to create ‘skimmable’ copy – text that can quickly convey your message and that your readers can scan to find the information they need. Non-word characters like the ampersand can act as mini obstacles, tripping up the reader and preventing them from smoothly gliding through your content. Full words, rather than symbols, are also easier to read for people with lower literacy levels.
The ampersand is not used in all languages, typically only those based on Latin. Using the symbol in your copy may create a language barrier between your message and people whose first language doesn’t have its roots in Latin.
Designers may use an ampersand in a company name or a logo because of its eye-catching qualities. However, this is a good reason not to use it in body text.
The symbol can be distracting because of its shape and the fact that it rises above most letters around it. It will pull your readers out of scanning mode and make their reading less efficient. Why draw their attention to one of the least important words in your copy?Why draw your reader's attention to one of the least important words in your copy? – From article: 'Ampersand (&) or and?' Click To Tweet
When to use an ampersand
Some style guides and organisations are stricter than others on the use of ampersands. It’s fairly universal advice to avoid it in formal copy such as reports, official correspondence and paragraph text in books.
Apart from that, there are no hard and fast rules, except to think carefully about whether using an ampersand would prevent your intended reader from quickly understanding your message.
Here are the main situations in which you would be forgiven by most style guides for using an ampersand:
Company names and branding
If the ampersand is part of a company’s name or an organisation’s branding, use it. For example:
- Ben & Jerry’s
- Marks & Spencer (but, interestingly, the official company name is Marks and Spencer plc. The ampersand is part of the brand, not the official name)
- Procter & Gamble
In some styles (e.g. APA), the ampersand is used for citations of works by more than one author. Note, however, that ‘and’ is used in the body of the text. For example:
- “According to Smith and Brown (2021), the…”
- (Smith & Brown, 2021) – in-text parenthetical citation of two authors
- (Smith, Brown, & Jones, 2021) – in-text parenthetical citation of three authors (note the serial/Oxford comma before the ampersand in APA style)
Pen and the Pad has a detailed article on using the ampersand in APA text.
In other styles (e.g. Harvard), ‘and’ is used in citations of works by more than one author. For example:
- “According to Smith and Brown (2021), the…”
- (Smith and Brown, 2021) – in-text parenthetical citation of two authors
- (Smith, Brown and Jones, 2021) – in-text parenthetical citation of three authors
Check the rules for the reference style you are working with to ensure you use ‘and’ or ‘&’ correctly.
When it comes to writing credits, what’s the difference between the following?
- Jane Doe & Fred Bloggs
- Jane Doe and Fred Bloggs
Just a point of style? No!
The ampersand shows that the two writers worked together on a script as a team, whereas the ‘and’ shows that they worked on it at different times.Little known fact: in screenwriting credits, the use of an ampersand (&) or 'and' shows how closely the writers worked together. From article: Ampersand (&) or and? Click To Tweet
What about if three people collaborated on a script, but only two of them did so at the same time? Good question! Here’s how you’d approach that scenario:
- Jane Doe and Fred Bloggs & Sarah Smith
Tekle Baroti goes into more detail about this, including the order that the names should appear, in her article on raindance.org about screenwriting credits
Titles of books and movies
If an ampersand is part of the official title of a book, film or another piece of work, it’s up to you whether you use it when referring to the work. Bear in mind that the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) prefers references to journal titles to use ‘and’ rather than an ampersand, even if the original title uses an ampersand.
The Oxford Style Guide (New Hart’s Rules) leaves it up to the editor: “Orthographic signs (including the ampersand) and abbreviations may be retained or expanded […] according to editorial preference.” Oxford says the same about quoted text.
If you’re deciding on a title for your own creation, it’s your choice whether or not to use an ampersand or ‘and’, should your title require you to make this choice.
David Gilbert’s book & Sons deserves special mention here. The ampersand in the title (being the first word, and one of only two) proves difficult for many search algorithms, including that of Amazon and Goodreads. Enter ‘& Sons’ into their search boxes and the book doesn’t appear. Google can only find it if you add the word ‘book’ to the title in the search box, and interestingly the book is called And Sons (not & Sons) in Google’s knowledge panel to the right of the search results.
Ron Charles wrote a great piece for The Washington Post on the difficulties of the title & Sons when the book was first published in 2013, and the problems he expresses don’t seem to have gone away in the intervening nine years.
All this goes to show that ampersands can prevent people from easily finding your book!
Ampersands are semi-acceptable in website navigation, mainly because space is limited in site menus. However, if you can avoid using them, please do so for the accessibility reasons already covered. Notice that my navigation at the top of this page includes a page called ‘Editing and proofreading services‘, not ‘Editing & proofreading services’.
Ampersands are also acceptable on signage due to limited space and also for style and/or branding reasons. Again, if you can avoid them, do so, but no biggie if you find it helps with space issues.
Specific abbreviation pairings
There are certain pairings of abbreviations that are so entrenched in the English language that the ampersand cannot be replaced with ‘and’. In these instances, there is no space on either side of the ampersand.
Some examples are:
- B&B (bed and breakfast)
- R&B (rhythm and blues)
- PB&J (peanut butter and jelly)
Another abbreviation using an ampersand is ‘&c’, which is an outmoded form of ‘etc’. You’ll come across this in classic novels, for example, works by the Brontës.
Word pairings in a list
Depending on your intended audience and/or the context of your copy, you can use an ampersand to show that certain words in a list go together as a set phrase, rather than being separate items in the list. For example:
- I love many kinds of music, including classical, rhythm & blues and punk.
- On the menu there are three kinds of sandwiches: egg mayo, chicken & bacon and ham & cheese.
However, for accessibility reasons, I would use ‘and’ with a serial/Oxford comma in the examples above, so they become:
- I love many kinds of music, including classical, rhythm and blues, and punk.
- On the menu there are three kinds of sandwiches: egg mayo, chicken and bacon, and ham and cheese.
Tables, charts and graphs
Space is often limited in tables, charts and graphs, so many style guides permit ampersands in this context. However, not all do, so check the advice of the style you’re following.
Ampersands are also fairly acceptable on business cards. This is due to style/branding issues, as well as limited space.
When not to use an ampersand
As already mentioned, using ampersands in formal text looks unprofessional, distracts readers from your message and can make your copy inaccessible for some of your audience. Avoid them as much as possible, unless your style specifically calls for them (e.g. in references).
Body text of books
Unless in edge cases for artistic effect, ampersands shouldn’t be used in body text of fiction and non-fiction. They may work in headings, depending on the genre, design and space available.
When considering using an ampersand, always bear your readership in mind:
- Will your audience easily understand the symbol?
- Does it detract or distract from your message?
- Would ‘and’ work just as well, if not better?
Never use ampersands in URLs (web addresses). This includes your domain name and addresses of your webpages. For example, this webpage that you’re reading is called /ampersand-or-and/, not /ampersand-&-or-and/, even though the latter would more closely match the article heading. This is because most web browsers will not be able to interpret ampersands (they have a unique role in coding) and will probably return an error. This is definitely not what you want.
Some organisations avoid the ampersand in virtually all scenarios. For example, the Office of National Statistics doesn’t use them even to save space in items like tables, charts and graphs.
The ampersand (&) has a long history, but nowadays the rule of thumb is to avoid it as far as possible, unless for a few specific reasons as covered in this article.
It can be useful to save space in headings, signage, web navigation and on business cards, but if you can avoid using an ampersand, do. This apparently innocuous little symbol is not understood by either all screen readers or your whole audience, so it can make your copy inaccessible to people with visual impairments.
Above all, consider your audience and the clearest way to convey your message. If using an ampersand clouds that message, use the much more accessible ‘and’.