The Mostly Forgotten History of the Ampersand (&)

Our alphabet has gone through many changes over the centuries. At least 12 letters that used to be welcome there have been ousted. Among those kicked out is the symbol “&,” the ampersand, which means “and.”

The ampersand is a ligature: two or more letters joined together as in the character æ. The ampersand began as a ligature of the Latin letters e and t which spell the Latin word et or “and.”

The symbol has been around since ancient times, but didn’t appear in print until the 15th century. The chart below illustrates the evolution of the ampersand over time. These are just a few examples of the many forms this ligature has been known to inhabit.

Unlike all of the other letters, the ampersand doesn’t represent a sound.

Where did the word ampersand originate?

As the popularity of the & symbol increased, the ampersand gained a place as the 27th letter of the alphabet.

In 18th-century English schools, students were taught to use the phrase per se when reciting the alphabet. Per se meant “by itself,” and was spoken before the letters “A,” “I,” and, for a while, “O,” each of which could stand by itself as a word. So in recitation, students would say “per se A, B, C….per se I, J, K….and so forth.

When the ampersand was added to the alphabet, instead of “X, Y, and Z,” students would recite “X, Y, Z, and per se and,” meaning that the letter & stood by itself at the end of the alphabet.

The phrase “and per se and” eventually turned into (got slurred together as) the word ampersand.

So next time you use the & in a text/tweet/email … may you find joy in knowing where that little symbol came from and how it got its name.


Some of the sources for this post:

Begs the Question? Probably Not.


The phrase “begs the question” gets used incorrectly more and more lately. I hear it on TV and read it in magazines and on websites.

Begs the question does NOT mean “raises the question.” For example:

Incorrect: My car broke down. That begs the question, should I have had it serviced last week?

Incorrect: Your mother is mad at me again. That begs the question, what did I do this time?

So what DOES Begs the Question Mean?

Begs the question is a phrase that comes from formal logic. It means that someone has made a conclusion based on a premise that lacks support. Wha?

OK, a few examples of statements that DO beg the question:

1. Speaking up for oneself is critical because it’s important to be heard.

“It’s important to be heard” doesn’t explain why “Speaking up for oneself is critical.” The two phrases merely make the same point in different words. This sentence doesn’t answer the question “Why is it important to speak up for oneself?” OR the question “Why is it important to be heard?” In other words, this sentence Begs The Question. It leaves the reader begging for an answer.

2. Chocolate is my favorite food because I like it best.

3. Vegetables are good for you because they make you healthy.

Do you see what I’m getting at in #2 and #3?

Note: My first-born son insists I’m wrong about all of the above:  “Language evolves, so begs the question no longer means what it used to mean.” The following link is for him:

(Apology: I tried to post the cartoon but it just wouldn’t come in here in any legible form)

And finally my favorite example from from someone whose handle is doubloons: (

“It’s important to use the phrase ‘begging the question’ correctly, because people should speak properly. But this begs the question, what is so important about speaking properly in the first place?”

I dunno. I just kinda like to talk and write good.

Say What? Say Said!

He said, she said, Dad asked, Mom blurted out.

All of these are examples of dialogue tags.

Definition: A dialogue tag is two or more words that attribute speech to a particular speaker.


“Do you know what a dialogue tag is?” asked Sloane.

“No clue,” said Dan.

In these sentences asked Sloane and said Dan are dialogue tags.

When writing dialogue tags, the basic “rules” are

  1. use either “said” or “asked,” unless you can’t avoid using a different verb.

2. don’t use a dialogue tag at all if you can avoid it.

But what about those strong verbs our teachers and writing coaches have nagged us about forever?

Good question. Nothing is inherently wrong with those verbs, but in dialogue they can often pull the reader right out of the story.


“I can’t find my new necklace,” Judy exclaimed.

“Look under the bed,” Fred responded.

“I already did that!” Judy snarled.

“Then stop whining,” Fred snapped.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with those sentences. But professionally, there are much slicker ways to get the same message across. The use of the verbs exclaimed, responded, snarled, and snapped attract attention to themselves, rather than doing much to move the story along.

Try these:

“I can’t find my new necklace,” Judy said. She knelt down to search through the dust bunnies under her bed.

“Look under the bed,” said Fred, fiddling with his tie in front of the mirror.

Judy threw up her hands in frustration. “I already did that!”

“Then stop whining.” Fred had had enough!

The second example paints a clearer picture of what’s going on in this story, how Fred and Judy are feeling, and where they are. Note that Fred’s final comment doesn’t even need a dialogue tag.

Here’s another pair of dialogue samples, borrowed from

“I don’t care,” Bill shouted.

“I’m not talking about this anymore,” argued Sharon.


Bill slammed his palm on the table. “I don’t care!”

Sharon didn’t flinch this time, her body was too rigid for that. She lifted her chin. “I’m not talking about this anymore.”

Having said all of the above, I now share with you a chart of 200 verbs you can use instead of said. Find the chart at



Lie vs. Lay: Who Knows?

My friend Bob, a high school English teacher and fierce grammar nerd, once told me that he “just had to memorize” lie vs lay.

Indeed, that may be the only way to remember how to use these annoying verbs correctly.

However, if your memory serves you as poorly as mine does, maybe these definitions and tricks will help.

I’ll start with the present tense.

Here goes:

To Lay:

The verb to lay needs to be followed by what Bob would call a “direct object.”

Or, as I think of it, lay needs to be followed by a thing (or things) that are being put somewhere.


Bob wants to lay those grocery bags down before discussing grammar rules. (grocery bags are the things that follow lay.)

I need to lay myself down for a while. (myself is the thing I need to lay down. Or put down. Or place on the couch.)

Egg is the direct object of that hen’s question.


To Lie: (as in going to bed. not as in saying something that isn’t true)

The verb to lie does not need a direct object. No thing is necessary after the verb to lie.


Bob had to lie down after trying to explain all of this to me.

Lie here and relax until you feel better.

Neither of these sentences has a direct object after the verb to lie. You can just lie down, plain and simple. Right? Right.

Note: the same rules apply to the –ing forms of lay and lie, known as present participles:



 The dog is lying down. (to lie)

Those men are laying down bricks. (to lay) ?

And now we come to the past tense:

The past tense of to lay is laid. And the past tense of to lie is, unfortunately, lay. I will stick to G-rated examples.

He laid the soccer ball down on the bench. (Soccer ball is the thing or direct object that follows laid.)

She lay quietly for several hours. (No direct object necessary.)

And past participles:

The simplest way I can define past participles is that they describe actions that are already finished and often follow the words has or have.

The past participle of to lay is laid.

The past participle of to lie is lain.


He has laid his hat down over there on the floor. (Hat is the direct object.)

They have lain awake for three days.

Here’s a tenses chart for lie and lay from Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl:


This is by no means a definitive list of the ways in which lie and lay confuse most of us. I’m sure I’ve left out any number of examples. So, please let me know whether this has been helpful, and whether you’d like to see me add or correct something.


Adjectives & Adverbs: How Many Do You Actually Really Need?


Quick recap: Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns.

“A common pitfall of writing is the overuse of descriptors. When adjectives
and adverbs are used too liberally, it slows down the pace of the narrative.” 

 Like most writers, I love words. I want my prose to sing, to excite, to charm. So I add descriptors—adjectives and adverbs—hoping they will help. Most of the time they don’t.

In his book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser offers this advice on descriptors:“Look for places where the noun contains the adjective, the verb the adverb. Not every oak has to be gnarled. Trust readers to draw that image from the noun.”

I had never thought about descriptors in this way. Where the noun contains the adjective? What? So I decided to play with some of my own writing until I finally realized what he meant.

Zinsser also said: “Prune the ‘little qualifiers. Words such as “very,” “rather,” “quite,” “a bit,” “too,” “in a sense” and dozens more clutter our prose and add very little.”

Below are two versions of the beginning of The Abode. In the first, I’ve added descriptors. In the second, I’ve taken them out.

 Version One:

Fel crouched on the deck, her eyes just above the top of the Silence’s railing, watching the scary pirate ship anchored quite nearby. She tried to stop her trembling. After waiting so long for this night, she’d finally been given the chance to help, too. Fel hoped she wouldn’t totally disappoint the others.

She glanced quickly to her right. Three feet away, Sam also poised carefully beneath the ship’s railing, very alert and watching. Attuned to every movement around him, Sam turned his head toward Fel, nodded once, and returned his gaze to the nearby ship.

Here’s why I don’t think the words in red need to be there:

Scary The adjective is contained in the noun. Pirate ships are scary. (“pirate” here is a necessary adjective.)

Quite: The adverb modifies another adverb, “nearby.” An unnecessary little qualifier as is too.

Her: The adjective is implied in the noun trembling. We know who’s trembling.

Totally: The adverb is contained in the verb. To disappoint, in this case, would mean lives might be lost. The word totally adds nothing to the mood or the story.

Quickly: The adverb is contained in the verb. Glancing implies quickness.

Carefully: The adverb is contained in the verb. To be poised implies a careful stance.

Very: A needless “little qualifier.”

Version Two:

Fel crouched on the deck, her eyes just above the top of the Silence’s railing, watching the pirate ship anchored nearby. She tried to stop trembling. After waiting so long for this night, she’d finally been given the chance to help. Fel hoped she wouldn’t disappoint the others.

She glanced to her right. Three feet away, Sam also poised beneath the ship’s railing, alert and watching. Attuned to every movement around him, Sam turned his head toward Fel, nodded once, and returned his gaze to the nearby ship.

 See the difference? Version Two gives the reader the same information as Version One with fewer unnecessary words to clutter up the prose.

 Questions or Comments?

Contact me at, or add a comment in the Comments box. I’ll be sure to get back to you.

Got Theme?

Themes always confused me when teachers tried to explain them to me in school. Probably just me. Anyway, here's a Merriam-Webster definition: "the main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing."

So what are the themes of The Abode?

First let me say that I didn't set out to base this story on any particular theme. In fact, only after finishing the book did I even give much thought to the matter. However, because this is a story fraught with challenges and danger, and because the primary characters are young and innocent, several themes emerge as the plot works itself out. Among them:

Betrayal: The Abode exists because of a betrayal.

Good versus evil: This is a fantasy, so good versus evil is kind of a given.

Escape: Almost everyone in The Abode is trying to escape from within the mists. However, more subtle escapes also present themselves as with one of the adult characters who has to confront his own nature and decide whether or not to attempt to change.

Isolation: Because the children of the Abode are captive inside mists, they are by definition isolated from the "wide world." They know nothing beyond the yard of the Abode.

Freedom: The main character, the heroine of The Abode, lives in a prison-like environment with other children. Her freedom, along with that of many other characters, is an ongoing concern.

Coming of Age: I refer to this aspect of the characters' lives as finding their True Form. This is, perhaps, the most important theme of The Abode.

Thoughts on Writing

Like many writers starting out, my dream was to write a book, sell it, and get famous.

I tried that, but, alas, several sticking points presented themselves right away.

First, I had to learn how to write—how to lose the unnecessary adjectives and adverbs; how to find that perfect first sentence; how to decide on a through line....And of course there were those niggling rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling to attend to.

So I practiced and got better. When I began to get published, I also learned to stick to the assigned word count and to get my work in before the deadline.

My first published piece, in my local newspaper, earned me $15. From there, I spent years honing my skills as a freelance, non-fiction writer for magazines and newspapers.

Finally, I began writing for a younger audience and discovered that this is the writing I love most of all. The Abode, a fantasy for readers 8 and up, is my first full-length book.