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What Is a Pilcrow?

A pilcrow, ¶, is the symbol for a paragraph break, guiding readers through a text's structure. It's a silent navigator, often unseen in modern writing, yet it holds a rich history in manuscript tradition. Its presence ensures clarity and coherence, making it a writer's silent ally. How has this punctuation mark shaped our reading experiences? Let's uncover its story together.
Henry Gaudet
Henry Gaudet

The pilcrow is a symbol closely resembling a backward facing capital P. In publishing and editing, it is most often used to mark the beginning of a new paragraph or identify where a single block of text should be split into multiple paragraphs. Pilcrows rarely appear in finished texts, but before the modern convention of paragraph breaks, the pilcrow was used to mark the beginning of a new thought. It has other specialized functions as well, such as its use as a footnote or reference marker, especially in legal and academic documents.

A pilcrow is made by making a backward P with two upright parallel lines close together, an elevated C intersecting with two vertical lines. The earliest form of the symbol is understood to be a letter C, short for the Latin word capitulum, meaning “chapter." Initially, the double slash was used to indicate scribe notes.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

This shape is the reason this symbol is also called a blind P. It is often referred to by its Latin name alinea, which translates as “off the line." Other common names for the pilcrow such as paraph or paragraph mark are derived from the pilcrow’s function, rather than its appearance.

While the pilcrow was once used to identify new thoughts in finished texts, in modern writing it is most often used in the editing process. Editors and proofreaders use this symbol to identify where paragraph breaks should occur. Pilcrows are especially common when printed copies are edited and notations are made by hand.

In print, indentation is most commonly used to identify paragraph breaks. Online text tends to be less dense, and a blank line is often inserted between paragraphs as an easy to read alternative. Use of pilcrows to identify paragraph breaks in a finished text is very uncommon.

Aside from its use to identify and separate paragraphs, pilcrows have other specialized uses as well. In legal writing, for example, it is used to mark references. Academics sometimes use the symbol to identify specific paragraphs in a text, especially when page numbers are not practical, such as in an online text. Bloggers may also use the mark to make permalinks to earlier writings.

Some religions make use of this symbol. Anglican and Episcopal churches in particular use pilcrows to identify directions for the congregation. As worshipers follow along in the order of service, pilcrows are sometimes used to mark instructions to sit, stand, and kneel.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books