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Can anyone tell me the difference between a letter and a character in the English language ?

What I found so far:

  • letter is the basic unit of alphabet and
  • character is a symbol.

Is there any elaborate explanation, please? I am having trouble understanding the nuances of what that means. When is something a character but not a letter, and vice versa? Is there any overlap between the two terms?

  • 'a' is a letter and also a character, '?' is a character but not a letter. – Peteris Apr 23 '15 at 9:16
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    It's hard for me to think of Chinese characters as letters. – Damkerng T. Apr 23 '15 at 12:30
  • Hi Karanam. I think you have the core of a really interesting question here, but the way it's worded sounds like you just want the dictionary definitions. I've edited to make it clear that you're looking for a detailed answer, in the hope that your question will get reopened, but any extra information you can edit in (perhaps specific things you want to know) will increase that chance. – starsplusplus Apr 24 '15 at 10:03
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You've asked for an "elaborate" explanation, so I'll elaborate.

  • A character is a typographical symbol. For example, any of these could be classified as characters: $ A m ; * 3 +

  • A letter is a symbol corresponding to a letter in an alphabet, such as M or G. One dictionary defines it as:

letter (noun) a character representing one or more of the sounds used in speech; any of the symbols of an alphabet     (from NOAD)

Now, for some fun facts:

  • The English language has twenty-six letters, which are represented using fifty-two characters (each letter has an upper-case and lower-case character version).

  • The same letter can be represented by different-looking symbols (also known as fonts).

  • What might be a letter in some languages could be considered a symbol in others. For example, µ is a Greek letter, but an English symbol. Also, ñ is a letter in Spanish, but, in English, one might describe that as "the letter n with a tilde over it."

  • The two are not mutually exclusive – a letter can function as a symbol. For example, the c in cat functions as a letter, but the c in E = mc2 functions as a symbol for a constant (the speed of light).

In summary, all letters can be symbols, but not all symbols can function as letters.


Fun exercise for the learner

From Wikipedia, under its entry for Angstrom:

The ångström or angstrom is a unit of length equal to 10−10 m (one ten-billionth of a metre) or 0.1 nm. Its symbol is Å, a letter in the Scandinavian alphabets.     (emphasis added)

So, is Å a letter, or a symbol?

  • And what is the difference between a symbol and a character? – Martin Thoma Jan 17 '17 at 10:33
  • @Martin - I'd say that characters are part of a typeset (such as ASCII), whereas a symbol is broader than that (for example, a pink ribbon can be a symbol for breast cancer awareness). That's an informal definition, though. Also, if that definition is true, one could say that some emojis straddle the line between characters and symbols. – J.R. Jan 17 '17 at 11:49
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    @MartinThoma - That's not pink, but I also suspect you get what I mean. :-) (ending with a three-character emoticon instead of a one-character emoji smiley face) – J.R. Jan 17 '17 at 16:31
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    You did miss all the LETTERs written using more than one CHARACTERs, I have two of them in my own name, and even if some languages that use combination of CHARACTERs to represent some SOUNDs don't handle them as LETTERs and cover it up saying it's pronunciation, I'm pretty sure my language is not the only one (speaking only of latin text of course) that has these combination specifically included in it's alphabet as distinct LETTERs. If you want to include non latin text then the rabbit's hole gets even deeper. – Szabolcs Páll Aug 11 '17 at 13:29
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    @SzabolcsPáll - I agree that I am only scratching the surface. You're right, the German Eszett (ß) the double consonants in Spanish, and the Persian alphabet are excellent examples where we can muddy the waters even further. – J.R. Aug 11 '17 at 15:07
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In general, a "character" is any mark or symbol that can appear in writing.

A "letter" is a character that is part of an alphabet. Basically, a character that represents a sound in the language and that can be combined with other characters to form words.

So in English, the letters are A-Z, in both capital and small versions. Characters include the letters, and also punctuation marks like a period or comma, and other symbols included in writing, like a dollar sign.

Note that in the computer world, "character" has a somewhat more specific technical meaning: it's a value from the "character set" represented by a code and that can be stored in a character or string variable. The old ASCII character set includes a number of "non-printable characters", control codes that were sent between devices. The idea of "non-printable characters" doesn't make much sense in conventional writing and printing.

  • You seem to be saying that "a" and "A" are different letters? I would say that they are the same letter, but they are different characters. Not sure if I've misinterpreted your answer. – AndyT Apr 23 '15 at 12:44
  • For conventional discussions, I'd say that "a" and "A" are the same letter, in two different cases. Whether that makes them one character with two "varieties" in some sense, or two characters ... I don't know, I'm not sure if there's any "official" definition of character that would precisely define that. In computers, they are definitely two different characters and have two distinct character codes. Unicode refers to them as two different "code points". – Jay Apr 23 '15 at 13:10
  • Mostly agree, but (press) printing has used spaces always, and the TeleTypeSetter (TTS) code used with Linotype for newspaper wire copy for decades, and some years more for phototypesetting and electronic prepress systems, has several codes to control setting that don't themselves print, and one (BEL) that doesn't even affect the type. – dave_thompson_085 Apr 24 '15 at 10:00
  • @dave_thompson_085 True, the idea of "non printing characters" makes sense in other electronic contexts, not just computers but including teletype communications, etc. I wouldn't call a space a non-printing character. It doesn't make a mark on the paper of course, but it does directly affect the look. You can certainly look at a printed document and see, yup, there's a space. But yes, by non-printing I was thinking of bel and escape and start-of-header and all that, most of the first 31 ASCII codes. – Jay Apr 24 '15 at 13:07
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According to a dictionary:

character: - a letter, sign, mark or symbol used in wirting, printing or computers -e.g) Chinese characters / a line of 30 characters long

letter: - a written or printed sign representing a sound in speech -e.g,) 'B' is the second letter of the alphabet. Write your name in capital letters.

So we can conclude that a letter is a kind of character that represents a sound in speech.

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What these terms mean depends on the context. Since we are using the internet, let's choose digital representations of text and Unicode as our context.

In Unicode, a character is an idea or abstraction, and what we in the past referred to as a letter (or glyph) is the visual representation of that character, its image.

Character : "Infinity"

Glyph: ∞

The character is a unique identity and is assigned a unique identifier known as its codepoint. The codepoint for Infnity is 221E (hex).

Character: "Exclamation Mark"

Glyph: !

It can get a little circular when the name for the character uses a physical representation of the character it's naming:

Character: "Latin Capital Letter A"

Glyph: A

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You've pretty much hit the nail on the head except that a character can be a letter from the alphabet as well as a symbol.

Look at it this way:

Imagine it like a role playing video game; Character is just the overall name of what the main player is, while Letter is their class/job role.

protected by snailboat Mar 10 '16 at 9:14

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