A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 70 — ‘⋮’, ‘⌨’ & ‘¶’

Computers are not typewriters: this is evident. Even so, it’s easy to forget that Christopher Latham Sholes’ mechanical marvel was the wellspring of the QWERTY, QWERTZ, AZERTY and similar keyboards we use to interact with our laptops, tablets and smartphones. Sholes and his invention play supporting roles in the Shady Characters book, too: the typewriter helped popularise the @-symbol even as it savaged the em and en dashes, but there was always one symbol on Sholes’ embryonic QWERTY keyboard that I never quite got to grips with. Take a look at the leftmost key on the third row of Sholes’ keyboard, as shown in his 1878 patent for “Improvement in type-writing machines”.1 What on earth is that? Or rather, what on earth is this: ‘⋮’?

Page 2 of Christopher Latham Sholes' 1878 typewriter patent, showing the mysterious '⋮' on the leftmost key of the third row. (Image courtesy of Google Patent Search.)
Page 2 of Christopher Latham Sholes’ 1878 typewriter patent, showing the mysterious ‘’ on the leftmost key of the third row. (Image courtesy of Google Patent Search.)

A few weeks ago, Marcin Wichary, design lead and typographer at blogging platform Medium, posed the same question on Twitter. One of the first suggestions was that ‘⋮’ must be a shift key — it’s in the right place, more or less — but this feature did not appear until some years later; Sholes was happy to TYPE IN ALL CAPS, like a modern-day internet troll, and it was only after his patents had been acquired by Remington that shift-operated lower case letters appeared.

Next came the idea that it the mystery mark was a vertical ellipsis,2 a rotated version of the standard character (…) that has existed in Unicode since 1993, when it was introduced with version 1.1 of the standard computer character set. As Ross McKillop explained,

[⋮] serves same purpose as … but takes up less space so works on monospaced type3

So far, so reasonable — except, of course, that if the character in question is a vertical ellipsis then it has endured one of the most precipitous falls from grace I’ve yet come across. Every other symbol on Sholes’ original QWERTY keyboard survives in one form or another, and yet the vertical ellipsis, if that is what it was, has effectively disappeared from typographic use. The only similar symbol I’ve ever seen in the wild is the ‘⋮’ used in some Android applications to open a menu or to invoke some secondary action.4 The vertical ellipsis exists, certainly, but I’m pretty sure that it is not the same character that Sholes had in mind.

In the end, Marcin himself found the answer lurking in a paper entitled “On the Prehistory of QWERTY”, written by Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka and published in the journal Zinbun in 2011. It so happens that I mentioned this paper in passing back in 2013, when looking into the layout of the letter keys on the QWERTY keyboard. I learned then that QWERTY’s confusing distribution of alphabetic keys may have been intended to help telegraph operators transcribe the dits and dahs of Morse code, where certain letters were often confused with one another:

[Morse] code rep­res­ents Z as ‘· · · ·’ which is of­ten con­fused with the di­gram SE, more fre­quently-used than Z. Some­times Morse re­ceiv­ers in United States can­not de­term­ine whether Z or SE is ap­plic­able, es­pe­cially in the first let­ter(s) of a word, be­fore they re­ceive fol­low­ing let­ters. Thus S ought to be placed nearby both Z and E on the key­board for Morse re­ceiv­ers to type them quickly (by the same reason C ought to be placed near by IE. But, in fact, C was more of­ten con­fused with S).5

But that is not all that the paper held. Marcin, who was rather more diligent in reading it than I had been, found that Koichi and Motoko also had a theory about our mysterious mark:

’ was added at the left edge of keyboard to indicate “paragraph separator” (“– – – –” in Morse Code of the Western Union Telegraph Company) that was often used when receiving newspaper articles.5

In other words, Sholes’ three-dot mark was the visual representation of the four audible dashes of a Morse code pilcrow: ‘⋮’ = ‘– – – –’ = ‘¶’, if you like.

I’m indebted to Marcin for uncovering this, but I’m also left wondering why Sholes didn’t use the more familiar pilcrow for his Morse code paragraph mark. Perhaps a reader can help shed some light on this — was the vertical ellipsis ever a common paragraph marker in telegraphy or otherwise?

C. L. Sholes, “Improvement in Type-Writing Machines. U.S. Patent 207,559.,” , iss. US 207559, 1878. ↩︎
Unicode Character ‘VERTICAL ELLIPSIS’ (U+203D),” FileFormat.info, 2016. ↩︎
R. McKillop, “it’s a vertical ellipsis. Serves same purpose as \ldots but takes up less space so works on monospaced type,” Twitter, 2016. ↩︎
Action Bar,” Android Developers ↩︎
K. Yasuoka and M. Yasuoka, “On the Prehistory of QWERTY,” ZINBUN, vol. 42, pp. 161-174, 2011. ↩︎

44 comments on “Miscellany № 70 — ‘⋮’, ‘⌨’ & ‘¶’

  1. Comment posted by Thomas A. Fine on

    I have doubts about their “paragraph separator” hypothesis. They don’t offer any source for this notion. It’s unclear to me why you’d need a paragraph symbol on the typewriter when a telegraph operator could just advance the typewriter to a new paragraph. The only real evidence they have is their own theory that the keyboard layout was designed for dealing with telegraph errors and ambiguities, but I’m convinced that this theory is wrong.

    In a blog posting I wrote a few months ago, I documented strong statistical evidence that typebar jam avoidance had to be the primary design goal for the keyboard layout (and then found a published paper that makes the same argument). I’ve been meaning to follow up with specific arguments about their telegraph theory. Their argument suffers from the same problem as the “slow down the typists” argument – it relies on a few specific examples (like z/se), which are easily contradicted by other examples of common problems (like g/me) that are not solved by QWERTY.

    Having said that though, I don’t have a better theory on what that symbol is. And they did see telegraph operators as a major market so it isn’t a bad place to look. But so is another big perceived market, courtroom reporters. Perhaps they used some sort of notation like this regularly.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Thomas — the idea that ‘⋮’ could have been used by courtroom reporter is an intriguing one. But then, stenotype machines were in use only a couple of years after Sholes’ 1878 patent, and they used only letters to represent all possible characters. (“PF” represents a paragraph break.) It’s a tricky one!

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Comment posted by Ralf on

    Am I the only one who clearly sees 4 dots on that key? The bottom one is just cut off partly, just as many of the other symbols don’t fit into the keys perfectly.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Ralf — Marcin’s original tweet on the matter shows a typewritten page with a three-dot ‘⋮’ included in the list of supported characters. I agree that the image appears to show four dots, but I think that may be down to the quality of the printing or the reproduction.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Comment posted by Andy F on

      Same here – looks more like 4 dots that don’t quite fit on the key. They’re also kinda square, too, like ┋ (‘Box Drawings Heavy Quadruple Dash Vertical’) or ⁞ (‘Four Vertical Dots’, which are rendered as squares in some fonts, round dots in others).


    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Well now, that is interesting — and it matches the four-dash Morse code paragraph “mark” rather better too. On the other hand, this Remington № 1 shows only three dots, as per Marcin’s tweet. Perhaps standardisation took a while?

      Thanks for the link! I’ll add an update to the post in due course.

    4. Comment posted by Hillel on

      Some internet browsing reveals some early models had four dots while others had three. Four seems to be restricted to slightly earlier models(pre-1873?). An earlier typewriter, the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, also had no 1 or 0 keys but did have a §. That could give some credence to usage as a text marker. Friedrich Nietzsche had one of these, and since it didn’t allow you to see what you were typing as you were typing, users would have to go back and correct the text. Could the dots have been intended to require later addition by hand? An 1874 letter by Mark Twain has three dots in the row of gibberish at the top, apparently typed by his two-year-old daughter, but he doesn’t use it in the text to give any hints as to its purpose.

      The 1874 model replaces the dots with a ^, so those dots may not have been long for the world.

      A fun coincidence: Slightly later typewriters have a curiously similar key with four vertically space dots. Once the shift key was invented, this key creates the : and ;. Look down at your keyboard and you’ll see it too.

    5. Comment posted by Thomas A. Fine on

      That photo showing a keyboard with four dots has square keys that don’t match any other photos I can find, and look quite odd to me.

      My guess would be that machine was rebuilt by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and used documents like the patent to restore the keyboard. (Or worse — when clueless people get their hands on a valuable old typewriter, they often chop the keys off to sell as jewelry).

      Also, google patents includes a hi-res (but monochrome) scan. There is a fourth dot, but it is truncated on the edge of the key.

    6. Comment posted by Hillel on

      Sorry, my html got a little screwy there. The four dots should link here. The next two sentences through “no 1 or 0 keys” don’t link to anything. I may have missed a tag or something. Keith, feel free to update that on your end if you can.

    7. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Hillel — thanks for the comment! I’ve fixed those two broken links. It looks very much like the “vertical dots” character was common on early typewriters, which makes it doubly galling that it continues to elude definition.

    8. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Thomas — yup, that’s where I took my own image from. (You can click most images posted here to enlarge them.)

      I can see what you mean about the square-key typewriter; it does look a little suspect on a second viewing. More research required!

  3. Comment posted by Dick Margulis on

    Out-of-left-field speculation here (no previous thought given to this, so take it for what it’s worth). Looking at the keyboard, the 1 and 0 are omitted, presumably because I and O are expected to do double duty. So the concept of double duty is in play. Now look at the punctuation marks. What common marks are omitted? Parentheses are omitted. The vertical dots might do double duty as generalized brackets, left or right, round or square, sufficient to enrich the kinds of sentences that could be transcribed on this infernal machine, no? The symbol might also come in handy in tabular work, such as a price list in a business letter or an invoice, where it could be used to create vertical rules.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Dick — that’s another intriguing idea. All these theories (vertical ellipsis, Morse code pilcrow, punctuational understudy) will stand or fall on being able to hunt down some contemporary typewritten documents — I’ll have to find the time to do some digging!

  4. Comment posted by Ralph on

    the ver­tical el­lip­sis … has ef­fect­ively dis­ap­peared from ty­po­graphic use.

    It’s commonly used in coding books to indicate an omitted section of code.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Really? I’ll admit I haven’t bought a coding book in some time, but everything on my shelf uses either commented-out ellipses (/* ... */) or just the ellipses themselves. Perhaps I should take the opportunity to brush up on my coding skills and hunt down a vertical ellipsis at the same time!

    2. Comment posted by Ralph on

      As an example, here’s a note in the intro of SitePoint’s books:

      Where existing code is required for context, rather than repeat all the code, a vertical ellipsis will be displayed:

      function animate() {

      return new_variable;

  5. Comment posted by Richard Polt on

    I don’t know the meaning of ⋮, but here’s a peculiar fact. On my Sholes & Glidden (serial #A1119), the key marked ⋮ activates a typebar that actually prints a virgule: / .

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Richard — thanks for stopping by, and congratulations on the publication of your book.

      That said: the plot thickens! Thanks to you, I know that Remington Rand and Smith Corona made a virtue of swappable typebars in the 1960s, but did it earlier typists do ever do the same thing? In fact, might the ‘⋮’ have been a general-purpose key to be replaced as necessary?

  6. Comment posted by Thomas A. Fine on

    “virgule” – when I search 19th century sources for this term, I’m only find references that say it is the french word for a comma. I’m having a hard time finding a slash anywhere in the 19th century besides the per cent sign %, and another common sign a/c used to mean “account current”. But this may just mean I don’t know what they called it. It’s not turning up in any of several old lists of symbols and abbreviations I have links to.

    And while I’m at it, most 19th century sources say that “ellipsis” simply means “omission”, and based on this, in terms of punctuation, you can represent an ellipsis (omission) with a series of points, or asterisks, or perhaps most commonly as a long hyphen (we would type it as a series of dashes, but it appears continuous in typography). In this sense “ellipsis” can also refer to an apostrophe in a contraction (as there are omitted letters), or even as a comma where it is used for a list of subjects that go with a verb from the original clause, that verb being omitted from the rest of the clauses. Ironically enough, one way we now use the slash (e.g. “w/” and “w/o”) could make it a kind of ellipsis also.

    So based on that of course, googling “vertical ellipsis” in Google Books gets me nowhere except a bunch of old math texts, where they are talking about the ellipse.

    I suspect that they did in fact use what we would call a vertical ellipsis in tables but I haven’t found any examples of it yet.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Thomas — the slash used in fractions is usually called the “solidus” (after a medieval coin), and it does crop up in mathematical contexts in the 19th century. Also, yes, “ellipsis” occurs more often as a concept than it does a concrete mark of punctuation. There’s more on this in the Shady Characters book.

      The vertical ellipsis, though, is still something that just doesn’t ring any bells for me, even in tabular matter. I’m sure something will turn up, though; the only QWERTY key not to make it to the 21st century is too big a mystery to ignore!

    2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

      Solidus is Latin for ‘shilling’, and 6/8 (six and eightpence) was a rapid way of writing 6ſ8d, i.e. 6 solidi, 8 denarii (pennies).

    3. Comment posted by Thomas A. Fine on

      Yes, I made that connection, which lead me on a path to finding “⫶” in use in 19th century typography, as I detailed on my blog, linked in at another comment down below.

      But I hadn’t understood why they used “d” for pence. This makes sense. And also, I hadn’t realized the link between the slash and the long “s”. This makes perfect sense, especially when you consider the long “s” in italics or handwriting. (attempt at the italic version: 6ſ8).

      It seems that slash is a symbol with several different origin stories that are all valid. It’s fraction usage undoubtedly comes from math, as does “%” (and “‰” while were at it). But it’s usage in once-common abbreviations such as a/c (account current) and the more modern “w/” and “w/o” probably has yet another, different origin, perhaps linked to the apostrophe?

      I really should buy the book, shouldn’t I?

    4. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Thomas — the percent sign is a cuckoo in the solidus’ nest. More here, again as a result of a question asked on Twitter. (I certainly wouldn’t object if you were to find your way to your local bookshop!)

  7. Comment posted by Richard Parkin on

    OT but the vertical ellipsis is fairly common on my iPad/Phone for a menu expansion. I have an impression it is becoming more common. I’ve just used in Google Maps for example.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Richard — it started out on Android, as far as I know, but it has since become more widespread. As a rule, you’ll tend to see it in Google rather than Apple software.

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. Comment posted by Dick Margulis on

    Meant to point out earlier that the HTML entity and Unicode code point called “horizontal ellipsis” isn’t that, even though from a single-glyph standpoint, it is used as such for convenience (keeps the ellipsis from splitting across a line boundary). Its being called that was, I think, an error, but it is now enshrined in too many ISO standards for the problem to be fixed.

    What it actually is is a “three-em dot leader” (where “three-em” is compositor jargon for three to the em). Its origin was in the need to set tabular matter in metal and keep the leader dots aligned vertically, as seen in a default Microsoft Word table of contents. There were also two-em dot leaders and one-em dot leaders with correspondingly wider dot spacing. All of these leaders were, in the age of hand-pegged type, supplied by the foundries as rules rather than separate types, with the understanding that the rules would be nipped to the correct length by the comp.

    In the age of hot metal, these were set on the line like any other character. The easiest way to do this was to quad right and hold the period channel open, resulting in three-em spacing. So the two-em and one-em leaders fell into disuse and eventually vanished.

    1. Comment posted by Dick Margulis on

      To follow up about the ellipsis, typographers set three dots with fixed spaces (usually thin spaces) between them. The three-em dot leader is much too tight to be used in serious composition as an ellipsis.

    2. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Dick — interesting stuff! You say “The easi­est way to [create a 3-dot, em-width ellipsis] was to quad right and hold the period chan­nel open, res­ult­ing in three-em spa­cing” — can you elaborate on this? I’m not sufficiently au fait with Linotypes (which I guess you’re referring to) to be able to figure out how that would work.

      Separately, it would be instructive to know how typographers approach the Unicode ellipsis character. For instance, I know that in most of the proportional typefaces I’ve used, an ellipsis character followed by a full stop or another dot-based punctuation mark usually lines up quite nicely. That is, it’s not possible to discern the distinction between the ellipsis and the following character. If any type designers are reading: how do you deal with spacing in an ellipsis character?

    3. Comment posted by Dick Margulis on

      Hi Keith,

      On a linecaster (Linotype or Intertype), depressing a key on the keyboard just opens a mechanical valve at the bottom of a channel full of identical matrices. If you tap the key, you get one mat. If you hold the key down, the mats keep flowing. So if you hold the period key down, you get a row of dots, and because the period was normalized in text fonts to one-third of an em in width, they would naturally produce three-em dot leaders.

      I admit I never operated a linecaster myself, so I can’t give you any more detail than that (for example, how an operator would set up a right tab in the days before paper tape–driven Linotypes).

      To your other question, all the compositors I know deal with the Unicode “ellipsis” character by using find and replace to get rid of it. What varies between houses is the choice of how wide a space to put between the dots. Some favor a thin or another fixed space. Some prefer a nonbreaking word space (which justifies to the same width as the other word spaces on the line). Common practice is to put a regular word space after the last dot, to enable the line to break. If you’re fussy like me, you then go back through, and anywhere the ellipsis falls in the middle of the line, you replace that regular space with the same width fixed space you used internally. If you’re setting genre fiction for fifty cents a page, you don’t do that.

    4. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Dick — ah, I see. Thanks for the explanation! And yes, the idea of setting an ellipse as space-separated dots makes sense where greater control is required.

  9. Comment posted by DHeadshot on

    Unicode identifies the symbol as a “Tricolon”, whatever that is. On a more whimsical note, it’s also the letter “J” in Standard Galactic Alphabet (from the computer game Commander Keen, though many people these days know it from Minecraft) as created by Tom Hall.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Bradley Gawthrop mentioned the tricolon during the original Twitter discussion, but I, too, am in the dark as to what it means. I haven’t yet worked out the best way to trawl the Unicode archives to discover why a given character was included or what it means.

      Also: Commander Keen! That takes me back. One of the first games I played on the PC.

  10. Comment posted by Thomas A. Fine on

    I found it!


    Too much for a comment so it’s on my blog, The Lost Key of QWERTY

    The summary is that I found a usage in bibliographies where a slash, a vertical bar, and the three vertical dots are all used for the same purpose, that of representing line breaks, in a condensed form.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Thomas — I saw your blog post earlier today. Great work! It occurred to me as I read it that double slashes (//) were used for as a temporary paragraph mark in the medieval period (they indicated where a pilcrow was to be inserted), and also that single virgules are still used in poetry to indicate a line that continues after a line break. The slash, or virgule, has previous!

  11. Comment posted by AB on

    First, I definitely see 4 dots in the early patent and on the square keys machine, which rules out “vertical ellipsis” and some other theories.

    Third, we have only two documents where this character shows up, https://twitter.com/mwichary/status/689157311353368576/photo/1 and http://kottke.org/15/10/mark-twains-new-fangled-writing-machine, in both cases it is used just to demonstrate that this character is available, and it’s never used for any “real” purpose. This is incredible. Look at the list from the ad on Marcin’s twitter again; every other character is used widely and frequently except this one. Given how “stone simple” (to quote Thomas A. Fine from above) the whole thing is, this character could not have been something esoteric, like line separation in fancy bibliographies.

    I have to admit that I do not have a theory I am satisfied with, though. Apparently the “focus group” for the development of the first model were the telegraphists, so I would try to look into that.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi AB – I’d have to agree with that assessment; I can’t imagine adding an especially esoteric key to the keyboard when so many other common marks are absent. For now, Thomas’s idea that it’s a general line break or paragraph mark seems most plausible — although why it died out so quickly remains a mystery to me.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Comment posted by Thomas A. Fine on

      I agree that this is a big problem with the hypothesis. Telegraphy was clearly an possible market for the telegraph, one pursued by Sholes’ business partner James Densmore, and some sources (but not all) state that Sholes himself was a telegraph operator for a while. But I seem to find more court reporters in his inner circle. One of his earliest collaborators and testers, Charles Weller, was a court reporter (and author of The Early History of the Typewriter in 1918; great source), and his most important tester, James O. Clephane was also a court reporter. Courtroom practices or shorthand practices might uncover something.

      Another good place to look would be an archive of Sholes’ letters that’s held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and as far as I know, mostly not available in digital form.

  12. Comment posted by Dick Margulis on

    Inspired by this discussion, I found a copy of A Manual of the Type-Writer by John Harrison. It includes a plate showing the keyboards of the Remington No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 Type-Writers.

    As described on page 15, “The Number 4 Remington is built upon the stype of the Number 2 machine, but has the Number 1 key-board. It is cheaper than the Number 2, but as it has only the one set of type, (capitals,) can only be recommended to those who do their own writing, and to whom money is an object.”

    The plate shows the same arrangement as in the illustration at the top of this article, with an ampersand at the lower left. The key immediately above it does not show three or four vertical dots. What it does show is a pipe (|). There is no discussion of what that symbol might be used for, nor are there examples illustrating its use (because it does not appear on the No. 2 or No. 3 keyboard, which are for people who do not have money as an object, apparently). However, we might infer that the vertical dots were simply a way to make a vertical line for whatever purpose.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Dick — thanks for looking that out! Thomas A. Fine came to the same conclusion (that the ‘⋮’ became a vertical bar, or “pipe”) over at his blog. It does very much look like the ‘⋮’ key ended up as either a ‘/’ or a ‘|’, depending on typewriter model and/or user preference, within a few years of the introduction of the first typewriters, and also that there was a general use of the key as a new paragraph marker.

      This all makes me want to do some data visualisation of which keys appears on which typewriter models…

  13. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    In Unicode we have U+205D ⁝ Tricolon (Epidaurean acrophonic symbol three), and U+205E ⁞ Vertical Four Dots. (They are square in your typeface and in Deja Vu, round in Times New Roman, which only has the second one.)

    As for ⁞ as a paragraph mark: I remember (or think I remember) from my youth, centuries ago, that telegrams only had capital letters and numerals, which were printed out on a long paper ribbon. The ribbon was cut up and pasted on a form which a messenger delivered to you. I assume the operator developed a skill at cutting it to the width of the form, but he needed a clue if a new paragraph was to be started. The tetracolon, perhaps, meant “cut on the dotted line”.

    Against Scholes using ⁞ as a paragraph mark: Alexander Bain had a similar idea for printing telegrams on paper tape in the 1840’s, but it was not developed until the 80’s and 90’s by Baudot, Donald Murray, Frederick Creed, &c. But Scholes did his work in the 70’s. See Wikipedia for these guys.

  14. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    Ellipses are very common in mathematics to indicate items that you did not explicitly write, either because the details were unimportant, or because the reader could fill in the gaps (assuming the reader understood what was happening). In large matrices (two-dimensional arrays of numbers), you use U+22EF ⋯ horizontal ellipsis, U+22EE⋮vertical ellipsis, and U+22F1 ⋱ and U+22F0 ⋰ diagonal ellipses. Before there was Unicode, LaTeX could create these things.

  15. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    I noticed that Samuel Clemens, in his very first typewritten letter, used double spaces between sentences!

    1. Comment posted by Dick Margulis on

      That is to be expected, as Clemens was completely familiar with typesetting practice of the day, which embraced wide sentence spacing. If you look at newspaper and commercial typesetting of the period, the first thing you notice is the pigeonholes. (Indeed, this is one of the aspects of commercial typography that took William Morris so aback.) The reason for these wide gaps, I’m reasonably certain, was just the fact that comps were paid per thousand ems, and padding the sentences pushed up the em count for very little effort expended.

      In fact, in the Harrison manual I mentioned above, all the instructional text is typeset, with wide sentence spacing. The type-writer examples, however, consist entirely of one-sentence paragraphs. So there are no examples of double spacing after a period in the those passages.

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