I have three sentences in my math textbook that use the symbol %.

  • The symbol % is used to represent percent.
  • Usually denoted by the symbol %.
  • Most calculators have a key with the % symbol that will help you solve or check percent problems.

Am I supposed to replace "%" with the word "percent" in all three?

  • 1
    Read out loud, you mean? To whom would you be reading it, and why?
    – phenry
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:25
  • Yes, read out loud. Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:26
  • 4
    The first two are interesting. I'm not sure that you can read them out loud.
    – Rupe
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:42
  • 2
    It's too bad that we have hash for # and bang for ! but no shorthand for %.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 3:28
  • One approach would be to bring all characters to a common hierarchical level, although it becomes difficult for humans to read and parse. For example, the Hex ASCII representation of "The symbol % is used to represent percent." is as follows: 0x540x680x650x200x730x790x6d0x620x6f0x6c0x200x250x200x690x730x200x750x730x650x640x200x740x6f0x200x720x650x700x720x650x730x650x6e0x740x200x700x650x720x630x650x6e0x740x2e
    – user52817
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 13:55

4 Answers 4


All symbols prepresent a shorthand and as such were never intended to be spoken except in cases like "I gave 100%" where 100% can be spelled out as "100 percent" with no awkwardness at all in spoken language.

Your examples containing "symbol %" or "symbol: %" could be invereted and articulated with pretty adequate results if you invert the verbalization to "percent symbol". However your example sentence: "The symbol percent is used to represent percent." evene when inverted to "The percent symbol is used to represent percent.", begs for an illustration to make things clear. (Stand close to a white board.)

In summary, if you change "% symbol" or "symbol %" to "percent symbol", you should be fine in verbalizing them; however, be aware that this symbol doesn't always represent "percent" out side of a math class. You often see common symbols used with with other meanings in other disciplines such as computer science.

I not yet cencounter symbols in heavy use without proper names, but often these go unexplained in a given discipline. I was lucky enough early in my education to have study Greek and locate a history book on the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) that helped me resolve a lot of the symbol mysteries.


You can't really read the first 2 sentences out loud.

They are clearly written to be read rather than listened to because they are showing you what a percent sign looks like.

If you were speaking, and trying to tell someone what the percent sign looks like, you might start by saying something like "The percent sign is used to represent percent," but then you'd have to go on to describe what the percent sign actually looks like, or point to one if that were an option. Otherwise what's the point of that sentence?

The point is, the '%' in these sentences does not stand for "percent" because they are all telling you that the symbol stands for that. To do that, the '%' actually has to be standing for itself, the symbol. It's showing you.

So you could read it out loud and say "percent sign" or somesuch at that point, but the visual information which is essential to the whole point of the printed sentences would be lost. So there's a sense in which you'd not actually be "reading it out loud".

I think the closest you could get to preserving the meaning is by doing what I mentioned above, and saying something like,

"The symbol which is formed by a diagonal line from bottom left to top right with small zeros above and below the line is used to represent percent".

And similarly for the second sentence.

I think sentence three is different, because it's not explicitly introducing the symbol, just using it to identify a particular key. It's almost certainly been introduced already and so it's fine in that one to say "percent" at that point. Personally I'm far more used to it being called the "percent sign", but "percent sign symbol" would be redundant and silly.

  • I completely agree, the first two (maybe all three?) sentences are written under the assumption that the reader is not already familiar with what the percent sign (%) looks like. In these sentences the percent sign serves as more of a graphical element than a character to be read. If you want to convey the same information in speech you would have to either show what the percent sign looks like or meticulously describe it. Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 1:30
  • "showing you what a percent sign looks like" not necessarily: one might say "[in this report,] the symbol 'percent' is used to represent percent" (which I'd say was a poor way of wording "the percent[age] symbol is used to indicate percentages") - one might continue "other values are not percentages, i.e. 0.5 is equivalent to 50%, not 0.5%". Then, the phrase from the question served a purpose unrelated to introducing the graphical symbol denoting percentages... it emphasised its use as preparation for a contrasting statement.
    – Tony D
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 5:02
  • @TonyD I think I see what you're saying, perhaps you're right that there are contexts in which my analysis isn't appropriate. But your example seems a bit contrived to me, and redundant. You'd just say something like "Values without percent signs are not percentages" or "Only values with percent signs should be interpreted as percentages".
    – Rupe
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 20:02
  • In this case does the symbol stand for its name? In the same way as a numeral names a number, % names 1/100. Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 22:07
  • Would this phrasing be acceptable? "The symbol a forward slash with a circle on each side is used to represent percent." Similarly, "Usually denoted by the symbol a forward slash with a circle on each side." Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 7:28

There are no hard and fast rules that I'm aware of, but if I were reading it out loud, I would probably read the string "the symbol %" as "the percent symbol". If possible, I'd make notations in the text to remind me to do the transposition; otherwise it would be pretty easy to stumble over.

  • 2
    Sign not symbol. The percent sign.
    – Mou某
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:31
  • 1
    @skullpatrol - well, you'd pronounce "%" as "percent" in all three cases, but the last one does not require transposition.
    – phenry
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:32
  • 1
    @skullpatrol really? I've never heard anyone call it the 'percent symbol' - maybe I need to get out more.
    – Mou某
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:39
  • 2
    @user3306356 % is U+0025 PERCENT SIGN ᴀᴋᴀ percent or per hundred; ‰ is U+2030 PER MILLE SIGN ᴀᴋᴀ permille or per thousand; ‱ is U+2031 PER TEN THOUSAND SIGN ᴀᴋᴀ permyriad or percent of a percent.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:47
  • 1
    @skullpatrol - That's how I would do it, yes.
    – phenry
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 0:48

In all likelihood, the meaning as intended by the original author cannot be expressed exactly in speech.

As it appears on the page, '%' is one of several possible glyphs that represent the same grapheme - a semantically meaningful unit of a written language. The equivalent unit in spoken language is a phoneme. Two separate terms exist because there is not always a direct correspondence between a language as written and a language as spoken. In particular, not all graphemes are phonographic (write sounds).

An example that achieved a significant degree of public awareness is the-artist-formerly-and-currently-known-as-"Prince"-but-who-for-a-time-was-known-only-by-an-unpronounceable-symbol-or-else-as-"the-artist-formerly-known-as-Prince". I am clearly making a little fun here, but such twisting and turning and verbosity was a common strategy for dealing with a linguistic unit that exists only in text and not in speech. This artist's stage name could be referenced in speech, but could not be spoken. Similarly, you may be able to describe or dictate your example sentences verbally, but I do not believe that they can be spoken aloud with their full, original meaning.

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