Are “@” and “At” interchangeable?

In the age of instant messaging and emails, the use of the @ (“at symbol” or “at sign”) has become quite common. Have you ever wondered, what does the symbol mean and where did it come from? Can it just replace “At” all the time? We’ll try to answer these questions and many more.

Origins of @

In the English language, @ has traditionally meant “at” or “at a rate of” or “at a price of.” For the longest time, it used to be indicative of the price for any item. For example:

5 crates of apple @ 2,000 per crate = 10,000

Some argue that the @ symbol dates back to the 6th or 7th centuries when Latin scribes adapted the symbol from the Latin word “ad”, meaning at, to, or toward. In an attempt to simplify the number of pen strokes, they created the ligature (combination of two or more letters) by exaggerating the upstroke of the letter “d” and curving it over the “a.” It first appeared on a commercial typewriter in the late 19th century.

The point in time when @ started being used instead of “at” is still a mystery but it became the norm for all informal conversations, especially with text speak (ex: c u @ 8) where the speed of sending the messages became more important and we just got too lazy to type the extra “t” to form “at”. :D

Where else does @ find its use in our everyday writing? Let’s explore further:

Email and social media

Speaking of uses of @, email addresses are probably the first thing that strikes our minds. But why? In 1971, when the first email was being sent out, there was a need for a symbol that wouldn’t appear in anybody’s name causing any kind of confusion. The most logical choice was @, both because it was unlikely to appear in anyone’s name and also because it represented the word “at,” as in a particular user is located @ a specific computer.

Later, @ made its debut on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. in the form of a user’s handle or to direct a message to a specific person in group chats. For instance: @Meena

Technical uses

Scientific writing: The @ is sometimes used to mention the conditions under which something was measured (ex: 1.5 ml @ 34°C = “a measurement of 1.5 ml taken at 34°C”).

Coding: The @ is used in several coding languages such as CSS, Java, etc. and each of them uses the symbol differently.

Should @ be used in everyday writing?

Unless your writing involves any of the above scenarios, never use @ to replace “at” in formal or informal writing. It is recommended to use “at” — after all, it’s just one more character!

Did you know? Language experts across the world tried to coin a name for the @ symbol (ampersat, asperand, strudel, etc.) but it never caught the attention of the larger audience. There are a lot of interesting things happening around the world that don’t cross our paths. Here’s a fun trivia by Ultimate Quizzes to tickle your brain; let us know how many you get right.

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A helpful little writing tidbit for you to read, and incorporate into your day-to-day life: both in and outside of work

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Meenakshi Harpanahalli

Meenakshi Harpanahalli

Works at Niyo

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