Symbols which are not defined anywhere mean absolutely nothing. Therefore, I think we should maintain a list of conventional symbols used on ELL.

4 Answers 4


*: Used in front of an example word or phrase to indicate that the example is ungrammatical (e.g. *Me enjoy eating cookies.)

?: Used similarly to *, but indicates a word or phrase that is potentially marginal or awkward, rather than fully ungrammatical (e.g. ?unbelievableness)

??: The same as ?, but indicating stronger doubt.

#: Used to indicate semantic incoherence (e.g. #Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.)

/x/ indicates a phonemic transcription, where x is one or more IPA symbols.

[x] indicates a phonetic transcription, where x is one or more IPA symbols.

⟨x⟩ indicates a grapheme (how something looks in an ordinary writing system).


This might be downvoted by those who say abbreviations aren't "symbols", and/or those who disapprove of these particular abbreviations being used at all, but I think here is a perfectly good place to identify:

sth - something
sb - somebody [someone]

These forms are used by some dictionaries, and I've no objection to them being used on ELL. But I'm not bothered if people with edit privileges want to change them to the full forms.

  • My first dictionary as a child used these in the form s.th. and s.b., so I'm comfortable with them. However, it seems that many speakers are unfamiliar with these terms. If we use these abbreviations, perhaps we could add footnotes as @ctype.h suggested in a similar context.
    – user230
    Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 18:30
  • @snailplane: The use of periods doesn't ring a bell to me. Why throw away half the shortening effect? (plus I'm not keen on the implication that s=some, th=thing, b=body might thus be valid). But I'm familiar with them as given, so they're fine by me. Should we tell people they're not supposed to use "lol" on ELL without providing a glossary lol? Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 2:02
  • I've always been under the impression it's a US/UK difference. We like periods in our abbreviations over here for some reason. And no, I'm not trying to tell you or anyone else what to do.
    – user230
    Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 2:09
  • @snailplane: I'm not really advancing a position here. I wouldn't normally use the abbreviations myself in questions/answers, because I know some people don't like them. But I'll echo them back in comments to anyone else who uses them. Except (my small position! :) I won't bother echoing the periods unless they get scooped up in a "cut&paste" commented response. Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 2:14
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    I think these abbreviations are well-suited for a dictionary, which has a strong motive for using abbreviations (lest the bulky tome grow thicker than it already is). For an ELL or ELU question, though, space is not at a premium, and I find these abbreviations downright ugly. Plus, I think they make a question harder to read. I won't downvote you for mentioning them here (you're right, they are worthy of a mention in a meta glossary). Moreover, I'll upvote you for mentioning that some users will probably edit them to full forms. (I've done that before, and I'd likely do it again.) :^)
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 16:28
  • @J.R.: haha - I specifically thought of you as one of those who don't approve on ELU/ELL, since I seemed to recall you'd made such an edit on ELU in the past. Which is fine by me, so long as I'm not being asked to help edit out any new abbreviations that get posted. Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 18:55
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    When I see sb my immediate thought is 'substantive'. Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 18:20
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    These abbreviations (sth. and sb.) are not easily understood by most people, so I replace them with <something> and <somebody> when I see them. (I use the angle bracket notation to indicate that the user can "drop-in" a replacement word.)
    – Jasper
    Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 4:45

Varieties, dialects, accents, and descriptions of English

AmE - American English
BrE - British English
GA - General American
NSE - Non-Standard English
SE - Standard English
RP - Received Pronunciation

Please feel free to add more abbreviations to this list.


The following symbols are used in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p. xii:

* ungrammatical                *This books is mine.
# semantically or pragmatically anomalous    #We frightened the cheese.
% grammatical in some dialect(s) only     %He hadn't many friends.
? of questionable grammaticality         ?Sue he gave the key.
! non-standard                 !I can't hardly hear.

We can use these symbols similarly, if we like.

If you do use these symbols in an answer, I suggest adding a footnote explaining how you're using them. That way, anyone can understand your answer, even if they're not familiar with the symbols.

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