& AMPERSANDS

Posted On 9th May 2011

I date myself by saying that as a student Thursday night’s obligatory viewing was A Little bit of Fry & Laurie, meaning that a large cross-section of my hall of residence would settle down for half an hour in the JCR television room (just above the bar, of course) to watch Stephen and Hugh in their time as the bright, young stars of British comedy and screen.

For some reason, I have a vague memory of a sketch they did in their final series (and I’ve failed miserably to find it on YouTube, so if any reader can direct me, I’d be delighted) about the ampersand and, if memory serves, it rotated around a discussion of the design of the different ampersands that the BBC had designed to link Fry and Laurie in the title of their series.  Never had such an innocuous symbol created such mirth.

A lot has gone under the bridge since then.

My frustrated inner language historian cannot resist telling you that “&” has the exalted origin of being an abbreviation for the Latin “et”.  Goodness knows how they worked that one out since, for me at least, drawing a proper ampersand takes longer than writing “et”.  But also since those golden days in the early 1990s things have moved on such that we type much more than we write by hand.

Arguably, the fact that we are drafting more directly on screen, without the work going through the filter of a trained typist, means that people’s love of abbreviations has not diminished and has even, possibly, increased the number that pop up in formal documents.  I used to have a colleague whose love of the ampersand was such that whenever you sent her a document for review, when she sent it back to you, it looked as though a bunch of spiders had made their way across the page.  Depending on the nature of the document, you then had to go on a mission to replace “&” with “and”. The only time that the argument that it saves space really holds water is if you are remarkably short of space.

So, my advice with CVs and covering letters is that, as with the vast majority of abbreviations, avoid the ampersand.  In the middle of a sentence, it looks informal to some eyes and does not offer any real space-saving benefits.

There is the evident exception: if it is part of the name.  So, if you’ve worked for Ernst & Young, Marks & Spencer, Tiffany & Co (or even Fry & Laurie) or anywhere the ampersand is part of the brand, then leave it in.  Apply a similar litmus test to any other abbreviations you’re fond of (including contractions, now I come to think of it) and you won’t go far wrong producing a formal document.

Heidi Nicholson

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