What are they on about?

David Newnham hails the advent of the asterisk age

Free holidays for the next three years. How does that sound? Look again at the leaflet, though. There seems to be a catch.

Do you see something hovering to one side of the word "years"? It's the ubiquitous asterisk.

An asterisk used to direct the reader to a footnote, and on the face of it that's what this one is doing. Except that there is no note at the foot of this page, or any other.

If you search the entire leaflet you will eventually find the second asterisk. It's attached to a sentence informing you that, in order to get the free holidays, you have to answer a question about the Yangtze River, and then have your reply drawn from a hat.

But who has time to waste searching for errant asterisks? Of course, nobody really expects you to do this any more. In which case I should like it acknowledged that the function of the asterisk has now changed.

Where once it said "see below for details", this little star now merely indicates that the preceding statement is not to be taken literally.

Thus, if a car is advertised for pound;12,000*, it's actually going to cost youpound;14,000 (the asterisk indicates that certain components such as wheels, seats and a battery come as extras). And when a bank offers to lend you money at 3.2 per cent APR*, it actually means that it might be prepared to offer this rate to somebody, but unfortunately you don't qualify.

Before long, I expect this transformation to be complete. At that point, advertisers will no longer feel obliged to include a second asterisk in their material. (We may have reached this stage already. I don't have time to check.) Unshackled at last, the newly constituted asterisk will then be free to roam at will through the written language."I love you*" will quickly become the staple of romantic novels, while a simple asterisk added to such blandishments as "Yours sincerely" will make letter-writing a pleasure once more.

Soon, the asterisk will follow the inverted comma into spoken language, by way of a simple hand signal. (I suggest crossed fingers, held level with the speaker's right ear.) If this can happen in time for the next general election, I feel confident that the asterisk will finally emerge as a powerful force in British politics.

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