Q: If a character in a novel mentions a company that uses an ampersand in its name, such as H&H Consulting or Metro Film & Video, should the dialogue use an ampersand or the word “and”?
A: We’d stay with the ampersand in writing dialogue about H&H Consulting or Metro Film & Video. We see no reason to spell out the “&” character, especially since “and” is often elided when such terms are spoken—M&M’s, for example, usually sounds like “M ’n’ M’s.”
Novelists often use ampersands in both dialogue and narrative. In Humboldt’s Gift, for example, Saul Bellow uses one during Charlie Citrine’s conversation with Polly Palomino:
“I said, ‘Well, thanks for dropping in, Mrs. Palomino. You’ll have to excuse me, though. I’m being called for and I haven’t shaved or eaten lunch.’
“ ‘How do you shave, electric or steel?’
“ ‘The electric Abercrombie & Fitch is the only machine. I think I’ll shave, too.’ ”
In Portnoy’s Complaint, which is written in the first person, Philip Roth uses an ampersand in this passage:
“ ‘The Most Benevolent Financial Institution in America’ I remember my father announcing, when he took me for the first time to see his little square area of desk and chair in the vast offices of Boston & Northeastern Life.”
In fact, the usage has been around for some time. In Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens puts these words in the mouth of Mr. Toots:
“Poor Dombey! I’m sure I never thought that Burgess & Co.—fashionable tailors (but very dear), that we used to talk about—would make this suit of clothes for such a purpose.”
By the way, the “&” sign is thought to be a stylized blend of the letters in the Latin word et (“and”). It used to be common in “&c.,” an abbreviated version of “etc.,” which in turn is a shortening of the Latin et cetera (“and others”).
Interestingly, the word “ampersand” is a corruption of “and per se and,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “the old way of spelling and naming the character &.”
The usage was derived from the traditional way of reciting the alphabet. The OED says a schoolchild would refer to the letter “A” as “A per se a” and “I” as “I per se I” because each of those letters could be a word “by itself” (per se in Latin).
The earliest citation in the dictionary for “ampersand” is from The Clockmaker, an 1837 account of the fictional adventures of Sam Slick, by the Nova Scotian writer Thomas C. Haliburton: “He has hardly learned what Ampersand means, afore they give him a horse.”