Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Before it moved to The New Yorker:
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Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule



Pollux writes:

You don’t see the asterism very much. Three asterisks in a triangular or linear formation, the asterism is used in typography to indicate minor breaks or subchapters in a text.

Printers sometimes use it to call attention to a passage that follows, as explained in the fascinating book by Alexander and Nicholas Humez called On the Dot: the Speck that Changed the World. A terminal punctuation character, the asterism can be seen at the end of chapters, but also at the end of verses or stories.

Also known as a triple asterisk, the asterism had some other functions in past centuries.

According to Richard Taruskin in his Oxford History of Western Music, the asterism was used to denote an omission of some kind in 19th century typography. If the name of an author was unknown, for example, an asterism was used in place of the name.

19th century Russian music critic César Antonovich Cui used an asterism as his nom de plume (Taruskin, 311). This was because Cui had a day job that prohibited him from journalistic activities: Cui was a Russian army officer and wrote treatises on fortresses and fortifications.

How do you type the asterism? Only certain fonts support the Unicode character for the asterism, which is U+2042. According to this site, the fonts that support the asterism include Arial Unicode MS, Cardo, DejaVu Sans, and Linux Libertine.

If you’re using Microsoft Word, click on “Insert” and then “Symbol.” In the “Font” drop-down, change the font to Arial Unicode MS. The asterism will show up under the “General Punctuation” subset, but you can also find it by typing “2042” in the character code window. Click on “Insert” or you can use the shortcut key of 2042, Alt + X. Watch it appear! Your subchapter will thank you for it.

So there’s more to the asterism than just a pile of asterisks. Its appearance seems to me a cry for love and attention. So beautiful, and so ignored. Write a letter to an asterism (it may get directed to the ghost of Cui) here.


Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

ultrasound technicianJuly 30, 2010

Thank you!

how do I type the asterism?

Pam, great question! I’ve added a section that hopefully answers it for you.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree