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Opinion

Column: A Word, Please: When should you use an ampersand? Nearly never

There’s a rule about ampersands that doesn’t exist, even though countless people follow it anyway.

Nowhere is this rule written down. Nowhere will you see it manifest in professionally published writing. No one has ever spoken this rule aloud or taught a student to follow it.

So it’s fascinating to me that people do this: Her department oversees marketing and research & development.

Another: A Caribbean vacation offers beaches, historical sites and outdoor adventures (hiking & bus tours).

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One more: Their sandwich selections include roast beef, turkey and ham & cheese.

Writers do this a lot, especially writers of marketing copy. Do you see the issue I’m talking about? Each of these passages contains an ampersand.

But writers who use ampersands this way aren’t using the symbol as a substitute for “and.” On the contrary, “and” appears regularly throughout their prose. Instead, they’re using an ampersand in place of certain instances of “and.”

Evidently, these writers are operating on the vague idea that some noun relationships are connected with the word “and,” while other, closer noun relationships take an ampersand.

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If the pairing is a “thing” — a popular combo in the language like “mergers & acquisitions” — surely, that’s what an ampersand is for.

This is fascinating on a number of levels.

First, the sheer popularity of this assumption is mind-boggling. As an editor tasked with changing each of those ampersands to the word “and,” I can tell you that this is a very common practice.

Second, there’s no basis for this assumption. Unlike so many other fake rules in language, this one isn’t spelled out in some poorly researched textbook. It’s not documented anywhere I’ve ever seen.

Third: No one preaches this rule. Other mythological rules have evangelists. Parents and teachers tell kids not to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions, both of which are fake rules. But never in the history of English class has a teacher said, “Here are the pairings where you use an ampersand” then wrote on the chalkboard a list of combos like “peanut butter & jelly.”

Fourth: The writers aren’t picking up this practice from their reading. You’ll never see in an article in a major publication, “Hawaii is a wonderful destination for rest & relaxation.”

And finally, in my estimation, it’s harder to type an ampersand than it is to type “and.” Yes, it’s shorter: two keystrokes instead of three. But you need to reach for the shift key on the left and, simultaneously, the 7 key two rows above where your fingers are stationed.

So the writers who use ampersands to show special relationships are pulling a rule out of thin air, with no documented basis for it, never having been taught to do so by a teacher or parent, without an excuse that it’s easier, and without having seen the practice modeled in professional writing — and they’re all in lock step with each other.

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It’s remarkable.

But for anyone who might prefer a real rule, here’s a simple guideline for using ampersands: Don’t. At least, not when you want your writing to appear professional. My reference library contains not a single source indicating that you should ever, under any circumstances, opt for an ampersand in place of “and” in running text.

The Associated Press Stylebook says you can leave ampersands in proper names, like the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Captain & Tennille, and in common shorthand terms like R&B. Conversely, the Chicago Manual of Style says you’re welcome to replace ampersands in proper names with “and” if you prefer.

That means that you can refer to Peaches & Herb as Peaches and Herb, should the occasion to do so ever arise.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know. She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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