In an age of email, you might see the “at symbol” (or “at sign”) every day. But where does this symbol come from? And when should you use this symbol in your writing? In this post, we take a look at the following:
The commercial use of @ to mean “at a rate of”
How it is used in email and social media
Other uses, including in computing and the sciences
When you should use @ in your work (and when to write “at” instead)
Check out our advice below to make sure your writing is always error free!
Using @ in Place of “At”
In English, the symbol @ had traditionally meant “at” or “at a rate of.” For a long time, it has therefore been used to indicate price per unit in commercial contexts, such as on an invoice. For instance:
5 bottles of wine @ $7 per bottle = $35
The origins of using @ to mean “at” are lost in time, but it may come from Venetian merchants or medieval monks. Regardless, this is why most people pronounce @ as “at” in English today! And you may still find it used commercially, such as on a market stall, although this is rarer than it once was.
More commonly, you’ll now see @ used in place of “at” online or in txtspk (e.g., c u @ 5 = see you at five). This is, of course, very informal!
But what else do we use @ for in modern writing? It’s time to talk about email.
Email and Social Media
The most common place to see the at symbol these days is in an email address, such as firstname.lastname@example.org. We can trace this use to the very first email, whose sender chose “the at sign to indicate that the [recipient] was ‘at’ some other host rather than being local.”
In other words, just like @ can show that a product is being sold “at” a certain price per unit, the @ in an email tells us the recipient is “at” a certain domain. And we say “at” when we read this out loud.
Since then, we’ve seen this same @ appear on social media. Most famously, Twitter uses the @ symbol at the start of usernames. But you can also use it to contact or tag other users on Facebook and other platforms.
In most modern cases, then, we use “@” in relation to email or social media.
Find this useful?
Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.
Technical Uses: Scientific Writing and Computing
You might also see the at sign in writing from the sciences or computing. The uses of this symbol in these contexts include:
Scientific Writing – In technical and scientific writing, the at sign is sometimes used to indicate the conditions under which something was measured (e.g., 1.543 ml @ 34°C = “a measurement of 1.543 ml taken at 34°C”). It can also denote a trapped atom in a chemical formula. And it can be used in place of the word “locus” in genetics (e.g., IGL@).
Computing – The at sign is used in computing languages such as CSS and Java. Different languages use the symbol differently, so you will need to look up the language in question if you want to know what an @ means.
These uses are very specific to their fields, though, so you won’t come across them often unless you work in the sciences or computing.
The At Symbol in Sports
One more use of @ is to denote the home team in US sports. For example:
Friday November 1: Washington Periods @ London Full Stops
This would mean Washington were playing at the home venue of the London Full Stops. However, this is rare outside American English. In British English, for instance, it is standard to just put the home team first.
Should I Use the At Symbol in My Writing?
This all depends on the context! If you are simply messaging a friend, it is fine to use the @ symbol in place of the word “at.” The same is true of most informal writing, as long as your meaning is clear.
However, you would only usually use the @ symbol in formal writing if:
You are writing an email address or someone’s social media handle.
It has a technical or scientific use in your document (e.g., trapped atoms).
But you should never use @ as short for “at” in formal writing. And it is usually better to say “at” in semi-formal writing (e.g., marketing materials or work emails). “At” is only one more character to type, after all!
And if you want to be extra sure your writing is clear, concise and error free, why not try our outstanding proofreading services today?