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I'm not a native English speaker and currently have a task on my desk to translate some texts for an automatic telephone calling system. You know the stuff: to confirm your request, press one, to cancel, press pound.

And the question is: Should I use "star" or "asterisk", down left on the keypad, when your computer program talks to someone over phone?

Edit:

The calling system will be addressing both native English speakers and people who have English as their second or third language.

Asterisk is easier to understand in over low-quality telephone connection, but may confuse non-native English speakers.

Star is more or less clear to everyone, but may get misheard as it is only one syllable (especially when the phone connection is suboptimal).

Edit 2:

The system is supposed to give calls to people around the world in case of emergency with system they are responsible for. It allows for translation to any language, but the company running the system will not pay translation for one or two people, so everyone for whom there is no translation will get the call in English.

We use software synthesized voice messages (and not recorded human voice) and so the messages need to be as clear and concise as possible.

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Is your question basically: what is this * thing called ? –  JonW Jul 29 at 9:21
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* - snowflake key –  mjn Jul 29 at 12:42
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@Niet, Most teleconferencing systems I've used hedge their bets and say "Press the pound or hash sign". I think this is mainly because in the UK you wouldn't call it 'pound' as that would be ambiguous with the monetary symbol. I don't know if there are similar ambiguities with 'star' or 'asterisk', but I don't think so. –  Dan Bryant Jul 29 at 13:10
1  
@NiettheDarkAbsol: Please press the jail symbol has a nice sounding to it in certain situations, too. As we've been discussing this matter further, we've found, that even in German and Czech the name for the # sometimes causes problems and confusion. This makes me wonder whether the button has had any name at all during the design process of the first keypad phone. –  Pavel Petrman Jul 29 at 13:24
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It was only last week I discovered that Americans called # the "pound sign". Very confusing terminology for someone speaking British English where £ is a pound sign. Something to be careful about. –  Francis Davey Jul 29 at 14:02

6 Answers 6

up vote 61 down vote accepted

Press star.

Asterisk is the correct term, however some people will not know if * or # is an asterisk.

In fact, if they have heard * referred to as 'star' then they might assume that # must be 'asterisk'.

The word 'star' however will allow people to know what button to press, even if they have never heard of the correct terms, as it is a word with much more common usage and understanding.

This is not an English language question, as suggested, as the correct English word would be 'asterisk'.

If you have control over the software behind this, then it would be a good idea to make the system recognise presses of either * or #, in case people press the wrong one (assuming that # does not already have a different purpose).

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Thank you for a very good point about recognizing both * and #, that is a very good idea! Yes, the software is developed in my company and it is actually very easy to add this feature. –  Pavel Petrman Jul 29 at 9:37
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On the other hand, accepting both adds to the public's confusion going forward. –  I. J. Kennedy Jul 29 at 15:56
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+1 for accepting both. Despite having no problem understanding the meaning of either word, I find that by the time I finish entering the number the system asked for (and concentrating on making sure I don't get it wrong), entering a voice message, or whatever, I've forgotten what convention the system I'm communicating with is using and end up pressing the wrong one, often aborting the whole operation. This is horribly bad UX, and "accept both" is an amazingly simple solution. –  R.. Jul 29 at 17:47
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Do you have any cite for "Asterisk is the correct term" in the context of telephony? For what it's worth, the ITU says "The symbol will be known as the star or the equivalent term in other languages". –  Andrew Medico Jul 29 at 21:46
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Knowing what is star and not knowing what is asterisk is specially true for illeterate/ almost analphabet people. –  sergiol Jul 30 at 10:13

The standard term for the * key, per the ITU, is "star".

3.2.2 Symbols On the 4 × 3 array, the symbol on the button which is immediately to the left of the button 0 (on the 6 × 2 array, the corresponding button is located below 9, and on the 2 × 6 array to the right of button 5) and which, according to UIT-T Q.23, is used to transmit the frequency pair 941 Hz and 1209 Hz, should have a shape easily identified as the general shape shown in Figure 2.

*

T0103190-93

Figure 2/E.161

The symbol will be known as the star or the equivalent term in other languages.

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1  
Very nice, thank you for bringing a standard in! The most in other languages part is very helpful as well. I edited the question once more to better explain the system in question (and why your answer should get upvoted as well). –  Pavel Petrman Jul 30 at 8:16
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Per the ITU, # is also called square, which I have never heard it called square... ever. Most people call it hash or pound. –  smpl Jul 30 at 17:20
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@smpl: I guess that's where the other languages part comes in. At least in Swedish, * is called the swedish word for star and # is called the swedish word for square. Then again, neither pound nor hash would make any sense in Swedish. –  Tobberoth Jul 31 at 11:03

I work for a telephone company, and we often do custom IVR prompts for businesses. As a standard (unless the company asks otherwise), we say "star" and "hash" (for the * and # keys respectively)

The reasoning for this is to avoid confusion as to which key to press. Often times non-native English speakers (or sometimes even native English speakers) aren't sure what "asterisk" means. The * key looks like a star, allowing most people to take an educated guess at which key to press when the prompt says "star."

Often times hash is used to confirm entry of a variable amount of digits, therefore star and hash are rarely used together in the same prompt. This way you can always set up a fool proof method of getting the user to the right place (i.e. say star in the prompt, but route star and hash to the same place)

In general, say star!

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1  
In the context of phones, I've only ever heard # referred to as "pound". –  Keavon Jul 29 at 21:37
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@Keavon Often times Americans will substitute "pound" for the hash key. The practices of this go back to the early 1900s when # was commonly used to substitute "lbs" in trade (i.e. 5 pounds could be written as 5#.) However, calling # "pound" is generally frowned upon in telephony when catering to an international audience. –  smpl Jul 29 at 22:09
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@Keavon: I am not an English native speaker, so I doubt I would know whatever a pound would mean on a phone keyboard. For people like me a pound is only '£'. –  sergiol Jul 30 at 10:15
    
@sergiol I wouldn't know that a # looks like the word "hash" either but I was speaking purely of convention. I just meant that I have never, ever heard it called a hash in the context of telephones, only pound. –  Keavon Jul 30 at 15:49
    
In Portuguese we call # 'cardinal' (number of items) in any context, except in music, where we call it 'sustenido' (sharp in English). –  sergiol Jul 31 at 20:00
  1. The best would not to have to announce that the * or # key has to be pressed.
  2. There are generally accepted conventions upon the use of the # and * keys.

    • # is associated with "ok", e.g. used to “terminate input” — for example, if the operator has to enter a variable-length sequence of digits, they should terminate it (validate it) with a final #.
    • * is associated with “cancel” or, more broadly, “special function”. For example, terminate current dialog and go up one level in the “dialog tree”. Or if the operator enters a variable-length sequence of digits and terminates it with *, it cancels the entry.
  3. Why do you want to use the * or # key? Why not use a plain digit (0..9)? You should probably use # or * only if it is consistent with convention 2.

  4. You should consider that there are at least two variants of the English language — one spoken by native speakers (the vernacular) and another used by non-native speakers as a quasi-universal language — in America this is frequently called EASL (English As a Second Language). I understand that you want to implement the dialog in this EASL language.
  5. From personal experience, I suspect that the more universal EASL terms are “star” and “hash”.
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For most of the English-speaking world, the pound sign is £. Calling the hash a pound is unique to the Americas. –  TRiG Jul 30 at 10:02
    
@TRiG: yes, you are probably right. I edited my answer. –  Bruno Bonnefont Jul 30 at 10:35
    
@BrunoBonnefont, thank you for bringing the convention in. We already have that in mind (although it conflicts with the idea sketched in the accepted answer). As for the target group - that is the main problem. We need to address English and American native speakers and the EASL group. Luckily, your suggestion to use star and hash is congruent with other good answers, which increases the confidence that these are the optimal choices. –  Pavel Petrman Jul 30 at 11:58
    
@TRiG How is England "most of the English-speaking world"? Even most of Europe uses euros. Although everyone else uses metric, our stupid system still plagues the whole world so I would think "lbs." is associated with the word "pounds" much more than the currency symbol. Am I correct in thinking this? –  Keavon Jul 31 at 8:46
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@TRiG I also never knew 5# meant 5 lbs. That isn't the case in America either. Apparently it used to be in the early 1900s but it is never used anymore. Until I read the interesting discussions on this question I would have thought 5# meant "number 5" written backwards. I guess we learn something every day! –  Keavon Jul 31 at 16:31

People have rightly clarified that "pound" for # is pounds weight, not pounds as in money, and that it's not generally understood outside the US (? Canada) - hash is reasonable, and I agree that "square" is very rarely used although that's what the ITU tells us to call it. In the very early days of 12-button keyphones in the UK it was called "gate". That died a quick death! And again, I agree that the answer to the OP's question is that * should be "star" because "asterisk" is less likely to be understood by people for whom English is not their first language, and also 'cos that's what the ITU says.

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I have to disagree with Paul S.

It is not wise to accept a key that is not the correct key because

  1. you will not be able to use that key for any other function and
  2. it's confusing.

I especially disagree with the # symbol being confused for a star or asterisk.

The # symbol is the octothorpe,

which is alternatively referred to as the hash, hash-mark, number, number key, number sign, or a pound (not to be confused with the pounds sterling "£").

Therefore, it makes more sense to just include both names of the * symbol in your recording.

You would record something like this:

To confirm your request, press the asterisk (or star) key.

or

To confirm your request, press the star (or asterisk) key.

This avoids the confusion by stating both accepted names for the key.

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1  
If you say "or" they may then assume that it accepts both, like in the suggestion Paul S made. They know star means asterisk, but they may think asterisk means pound. –  Keavon Jul 29 at 21:35
    
Possibly, but that would be rare. However, instead of or you could say slash as in asterisk / star (asterisk slash star) –  Code Maverick Jul 29 at 21:56
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When making telephone prompts, typically you want to keep the recording as short and concise as possible to avoid confusion, and to not annoy the user. Most people are able to discern which key on their Touch-Tone™ keypad looks like a star. –  smpl Jul 29 at 22:12
    
The pound symbol (£) is not unique to pound sterling. It applies to all pounds, such as the Egyptian pound and the now defunct Irish and Cypriot pounds. –  TRiG Jul 29 at 22:33
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@Keavon - Automated System: "Enter your account number and press the octothorpe key!" User: "What the what?!" LoL ... that would be funny. –  Code Maverick Jul 31 at 16:49

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