Automatic calling system: "Press star" or "Press asterisk"?

  • 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?


    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.

    Is your question basically: what is this `*` thing called ?

    @JonW: No, I ask what term to use in this particular situation. I've heard both and I'm not sure which suits better. I'll edit the question to be more clear about it.

    I'd say "every other system I've heard calls it 'star' so I should too." But then I'd be asking "well what do I call `#` then? Number symbol? Hash? Pound?"

    @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.

    @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.

    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.

    FYI, *asterisk* in Spanish is *asterisco*, which sounds very similar, so no problem here. On the other hand, we'd have a hard time guessing * as *star*.

    @FranciscoPresencia At least they don't use #poundtag

    @FrancisDavey Actually we rarely call it the "pound sign" in American English. We usually call it the "number sign" or, for teenagers in the Twitter Age, they often incorrectly call it a hashtag. "Hash" and "pound" are much less common, but "pound" is used exclusively in the context of telephony, referring not to the symbol but to the button itself ("press pound"). Since pounds aren't our currency, the term "pounds" makes us think only of "lbs." which is the "symbol" for the measurement of weight in the (stupid) U.S. Customary Unit system.

    "Star" is fine – **asteriskos = "little star" in Greek.**

  • Paul S

    Paul S Correct answer

    7 years ago

    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).

    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.

    On the other hand, accepting both adds to the public's confusion going forward.

    +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.

    Sorry, Paul, I have to disagree on this one.

    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".

    Why not meet Paul and Maverick halfway? If `#` is pressed, and it is performing no other function (it isn't, if you were going to map it to the same) then have some other prompt like "Not recognised, did you mean to press the asterisk key?"

    @OllieFord I would not make the process more complicated... Because what are the chances, that the user presses # and expects something else to happen? I would say 95% of the people who press # in this situation want to press * so you should just accept it and go on, without trying to educate your customer

    @Falco If you later add different functionality to `#` it will be confusing (they'll think "why switch? You should've put this new thing on `*`!)

    @OllieFord you have to evaluate what is more important - a good experience now, or possible future use cases? Beacuse if you want more functionality maybe they have to press multiple buttons? So should you now warn them if they press a button twice? And should you give them enough time to press it twice, so they will not be confused about increased waiting times later? - I'd rather later say to them "Press the HASH to do X and press the Star to do Y"

    Knowing what is star and not knowing what is asterisk is specially true for illeterate/ almost analphabet people.

    I'm guilty. I've many times heard asterisk/pound on the phone, and found myself looking at both. User can easily relate to "start" and make the connection to asterisk. I wonder if pound should be renamed to hash? Most people in the modern world know "hashtag"...

    I think it depends on the field. In computation, it is more appropriate to call it an asterisk, but in mathematics, it is almost always called a star.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM

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