ticks and checkmarks

I'm sure I missed many opportunities when writing about games recently, but I almost immediately reali{s/z}ed I'd omitted (BrE) noughts and crosses/(AmE) tic-tac-toe. Clearly, the BrE name is naming the symbols used in the game: O and X. In AmE, however, those symbols are usually called by the names of the letters they resemble: 'oh' and 'ex'. But the X-like cross has another use in British culture; it marks things that are incorrect, and its opposite, symboli{s/z}ing correctness, is the tick: .

Now, this took some getting used to when I first started teaching in South Africa, where they use the same system. Why? Because when/where I was a child, a checkmark (AmE for ) on your work meant that you got it wrong. This is actually fairly counterintuitive, because a can mean 'good' in various other contexts. For instance, if I wrote an essay in school and it was just OK, it would get a at the top of the page. If it were (usual BrE = was--but we'll get to the subjunctive some other time) very good, it would receive a + or ++. And a in an advertisement or on a grocery list means 'we've got it' or 'mission accomplished' or similarly positive things.

It seems that many American schools use the British system of for 'correct' and X for 'incorrect', while calling them check(mark)s and exes still. It's not clear to me whether this is a recent innovation or a long-standing variation. (American readers--did you get checked or exed wrong, and when?) But there is some evidence that the system that I knew as a youngster is still around in some places, as these teachers (on the page linked above) note:
Canuck: I am a Canadian teacher, working in Korea at an American school. (Yikes) As a result, I'm confused! I've always used a check mark for correct answers and an x for wrong. However, my students are confused and think this is backwards. [...]

Wig [from western Michigan]: I wonder how much it has to do with how papers were graded when you were in school? It's a good question, but everyone in my school uses a checkmark if it is wrong.
Over on the Guardian's Notes and Queries page, it's noted that the Swedes also use to mean 'incorrect' (adding to the multitude of reasons that I feel a kinship with Swedish culture), and it's supposed that originally came from V for Latin veritas 'truth'.

During the first multiracial elections in South Africa (which I was lucky enough to witness), trainers crossed the country teaching people how to mark a ballot paper. One of the things that they had to contend with was the fact that people with some schooling saw the X as a sign of wrongness, so rather than putting a cross/X next to the person they wanted to vote for, it was some people's urge to put crosses next to all the people they didn't want to vote for. So, it's not just the tick/checkmark that can sometimes mean 'wrong' and sometimes mean 'right'--the cross/X can too.


  1. Incidentally, there is actually a unicode character for 'Check Mark'—U+2713—which you may use rather than the slightly confusing square root sign, like so: ✓

  2. Speaking as a Dane I also use ✓ for "correct", while I'm used to a Danish "minus" for incorrect. That is, what to most other people look a division sign: an en-dash cum colon so to speak.

    Of course in my handwriting it gets tilted and looks pretty much like "%".

  3. I never read a checkmark as anything but positive, and neither did my wife -- who is also a teacher, and uses checkmarks as positive indications. We both find it very surprising that anyone, American or not, would use checkmark as a negative mark.

  4. Some of this understanding is intuitive until of course, you get asked to explain it.

    In India, where several British customs still remain, a tick on my homework would be for a correct answer, a cross for a wrong one. But in elections, one marks a cross against one's candidate for ballot papers, even in Scotland/ England where too I have voted.

    Multiple choice questions in India, the UK and the US require a cross-mark to show one's choice. So whether I wrote the Common Admissions Test for B-schools in India or GMAT or GRE, a cross-mark it was for an answer I chose.

    I have somehow seamlessly used the custom of the context without questioning.

    By the way, most recently, a tick mark against my argument in my M Phil course work and thesis meant 'good' or 'notable' and not 'what crap!' They were marked by an English academic and a Canadian one, both of whom obtained their doctorates at MIT in Boston.

  5. Lynnequist,

    I ran into this problem when I first moved to the UK in 2002 and started getting prescription refills/reorders at my local doctor's pharmacy/GP's dispensary.

    They provide a piece of paper with my prescriptions which lists those available to me, and the form has a box next to each one. I'm supposed to indicate which ones I want and then deposit the paper in a box outside the "surgery".

    I used to put an "X" in those I wanted...as I would have when voting...until a member of staff advised me that my way of marking was confusing them.

    So now I put an affirmative checkmark in the boxes of those I want, and I completely X-out the description of those I don't...and I've had no problems since.

    But I learned an interesting lesson there...



  6. Can I put a cross against spelling my name with a Q? (You lose the pun that way!)

  7. Loosely connected to this subject is the nod or shake of the head. Only in the US have I heard anyone say "He shook his head in agreement". AFAIK, in BrE you can only nod in agreement, or shake in disagreement.

  8. In (American) school in the 80s and 90s I knew a checkmark indicated a correct answer, and an X indicated a wrong answer. Like other people have said, a check at the top of a paper meant satisfactory work, and a check plus is extra satisfactory, etc. For marking boxes as in voting, etc., it never occured to me that it could matter if you used a check or an X! I use them both.

  9. I am at work now and finally understand Crux's comment about the square root sign. On my Mac at home it was a tick! Will change. But my computer at work, although it says it's reading unicode, doesn't get all of the symbols. Big pain.

    GY, all I remember about school was being told repeatedly that I 'wasn't living up to my potential', no matter how many plusses (or minuses) there were after the checkmarks/ticks.

  10. ...and the unicode for a tick/checkmark is showing up as a box on this computer--so will wait until I'm on a friendly Mac again before correcting. Apologies to those who see a square root sign.

  11. Pete Moor says "... the nod or shake of the head".

    In some cultures it gets worse. Shaking or nodding both may mean 'I hear you' but not necessarily 'I agree with you'.

    And presumably some of you have heard of or suffered the lateral Indian head-nod supposed to mean any of 'I hear you' or 'I agree with you' or plain disagreement..

  12. But then you can be given a ticking off for your misdeeds.

  13. A checkmark in the right margin of a printed document means the proofreader has made a correction on that line, and the typist must find it and make the change to the document.

  14. Shaking or nodding both may mean 'I hear you' but not necessarily 'I agree with you'.

    I had a semantics teacher who would play on this. He'd say things like:
    "Yep. And by 'yep' I mean 'I acknowledge that you are talking', not 'I agree', which I don't".

  15. Hmmm, in school a check never meant incorrect, that would have been an X. At the top of the assignment it might mean just okay, as opposed to check+, ++. Though never incorrect ...

  16. I seem to recall teachers often using one slash through incorrect answers while correct ones were either unmarked or maybe, but rarely, checked. I've had teachers who checked wrong answers, others who crossed them, and still others who slashed them - but I don't recall correct answers being marked in a special manner most of the time - if it was left alone then it was correct. I went to ten different public schools growing up (we moved a lot) so I don't recall ever there being a consistant system. My current college professors all do different things as well.

    Currently I have one professor who grades everything with checks, and every question gets marked with a special check of some type. "Check minus" means flat out wrong, "check dot" means incomplete, "check" means average, and "check plus" means above average. Not only does each answer get marked with a check of some type, but on the top of the paper is always some kind of average of the many check marks into one overall checkmark grade. Only for final grades do we actually get some type of letter grade. It takes a little while to get used to this odd system and it serves as the subject to a lot of joking and taunting amongst us students outside of class.

    BTW, all of the check marks in the original blog post appear as question marks.

  17. I think it must depend on your computer as to what the tick marks show up as. They look like boxes to me, not question marks.

    My pupils had to get used to upside down ticks for 'correct' from me, if I was having to mark multiple choice from a marking key. I'm left handed, and therefore obscured the answers on the key. So I turned everything upside down and marked them that way. I do dots for incorrect, but the convention is generally for a cross.

  18. Allie... why not just put the ticks/checks down the left side of the page instead of turning the whole universe (of evaluation shorthand) on its head?

  19. Because my left hand - holding the pen/pencil - is obscuring the correct answers written on the left side of the marking key.

  20. I looked for a picture of an answer key sheet but can't find one.

    Imagine a test sheet that is broken up into columns of multiple choice answers - just the A, B, C answers, as the questions with their potential answer options are in a separate booklet. In order to mark the answers given by the student, you have an answer key sheet. The sheet is made of cardboard with cutout columns that line up with the answer columns. The handwritten answers will show up in the middle of the column, obviously. But where do they print the correct answers for you to compare against so you can mark? On the right handside where most people will rest their hand whilst reading down so they have to look at the two answers to compare, then put their hand down to tick (or cross), then lift their hand to compare the next answer, then put their hand down to put a cross etc etc??

    Of course not. They put the answers on the left side, so that right handed people can rest their hand and compare with ease, going tick cross tick without any inconvenience.

    Make sense?

  21. Over where I'm sitting, these unicode ticks/checkmarks/former square root signs look like question marks.

    Wouldn't spelling Lynneguist with a Q, Lynnequist, make the name sound more Swedish? Or would that be
    Lynneqvist? Or something?

  22. I've discovered that Internet Explorer doesn't like unicode very much--it seems to 'get' some symbols and not others. The IT people at work have solved the problem by giving me Firefox instead (which is a far better browser anyway, as far as I'm concerned). I take that to mean that they don't know how to fix Explorer's bad habits.

    I've changed it now to the unicode ticks, which means that no one should be seeing them as square root signs now, but it seems to have created new problems for others...

    Strawman, I think we'd need the v in qvist to make it Swedish-sounding. But am I more enamo(u)red with bad linguistics puns or Swedishisms? Hard to say...

    Incidentally, where a tick/checkmark means 'incorrect', a 'c' is often used to mean 'correct'. Reading about it on the web brought that memory back, but as I remember, it was more frequent to leave correct things unmarked in order not to clutter up the paper. At any rate, ticks/checkmarks meaning 'wrong' seem to be a locali{s/z}ed phenomenon--although so far we have them locali{s/z}ed to a Catholic school in upstate New York in the 1970s and an American school in Korea today...

  23. LynneGuist...

    Oops...sorry...slip of the fingers! I PROMISE to not do that again!


  24. Thanks Janet, all is forgiven. :)

    Now to tackle all the people who think my name is Lynn...

  25. I use Firefox too. They're showing as question marks there. I had a look at it on Internet Explorer - yep, boxes there. I hadn't noticed that they were originally square root signs until someone mentioned it.

  26. I'm reading in Firefox and I see ticks (except in ginger yellow's post, where they're square roots).

  27. What I remember from growing up in central NY during the 50s and 60s is: red X's for errors, and possibly check marks for the other answers. But rather than interpreting the check marks as meaning "correct" I think they simply mean "done" as on a to-do list. Teachers often grade papers during study time in school, but many distractions occur in that environment, so some teachers use the check marks to keep track of where they left off. It's a subtle distinction, I know, but it unifies the semantics of the check mark with other uses.

  28. What a Pandora's box you have opened here! Another one to add to your collection if you haven't already is Rock/Paper/Scissors (UK) and Roshambo (US.

  29. Tracey: Rock Paper Scissors was dealt with back here. You can use the 'search blog' feature at the top of the main page to find past topics.

  30. American readers--did you get checked or exed wrong, and when?

    All through school, check marks were for correct answers, exes for wrong answers. Northeast US, late seventies through early nineties.

  31. As a left-hander, I always found making "backwards" checkmarks came more naturally but I knew they threw some people off, so I trained myself to use "x" when filling out forms, etc.

    I attended school in California in the 70s and 80s and when I taught in Eritrea in the 90s, I was explicitly taught the British system of checks and ticks, which seemed quite foreign at the time, so I'm sure it's not what I had experienced at school.

    After having taught in 3 countries with the British system, I'm back in the US and find that students are confused by my checks and crosses, and I now hesitate when filling in a form.

  32. When I was teaching at the U. of I. in Urbana back in the 1970s, a check was a mark I would put on homework papers, for example, to say to students "you completed the assignment". It wasn't a grade. If there was a question later about how hard the student had worked, she or he had proof that I had seen and approved the work done.

    A check+ was an informal signal to the student that the work was done extra well. I think the check mark is always a positive indicator in America. But it's not necessarily a grade.

  33. Hi Ken,

    I used to be at U of I too, but one's own experience of one place isn't really strong enough to conclude about what it means across America--especially since we've got other testimonials to the contrary!

  34. I work in the UK FE system and use a tick for at least three different types of marking - and it has a slightly different meaning in each type.

    If I am marking an examination script for an Examining Body – I am generally expected to put a tick into the student text where ever the work matches one of the criteria on the pre-agreed marking scheme. I put two ticks if the work s worth two marks. At the end of each question I would add up the ticks and write the sum as the mark for that question. This is a purely summative assessment process – it is not intended to feedback any real information to the student about the quality of the work - just to give a standardized assessment of that piece of work against a numeric scale.

    More frequently I am marking work that is part of a formative assessment process. It is designed to feedback information to the student in a way that helps them improve performance in the future. In theb case of BTEC assignments - this work could be a used as both formative and summative assessment at the same time

    Some questions have Right/Wrong answers “Convert the decimal number 371 to Binary” - that question can only have two outcomes. The student can give me a correct answer (101110011, they get a tick) or an incorrect answer (they get a cross). In either case I put the ‘mark’ somewhere towards the end of the relevant response.

    Other times a question might ask for a free form response. In most work of this kind - there is more than on way to answer the question correctly. In this type of scenario I tend to make marks of the paper as I read it. A tick normally means something like ‘Yes, that argument fits in OK’ a cross means - ‘No. That argument is not valid in this context’ or ‘No, That is completely wrong’. However, I use other marks on the paper as well. Circling a specific piece of text or example will link a mark specifically to that element, rather than the whole section or paragraph. Question marks generally mean something like ‘I Can’t make sense of that’ or ‘Your spelling/handwriting is so bad I can’t read it’. These type of marks will generally be accompanied by a short commentary, maybe a word or two in the margin, perhaps a sentence or so at the end of the work - perhaps even both.

    Whichever way around - a tick is positive - a cross is negative.

  35. Welcome to the storied ranks of the Firefox users, Lynnguist! If you decide you want to get Firefox on your Mac as well, go to getfirefox.com.

    The reason Firefox is so accommodating about oddball Unicode characters is that if the main font being used to display the text doesn't contain the desired character, Firefox will grab a glyph from any of the available fonts on your system. IE doesn't have this intelligence, and nobody can fix it except Microsoft, who evidently has(AmE)/have(BrE) no interest in doing so.

  36. Thanks, John. I've been using Firefox on my Mac all along...

  37. Well Lynnequist and fellow U of Ier,

    My experience includes studies secondary and undergraduate in North Carolina, and teaching at Champaign and other places in Illinois, as well as teaching in California. So there


    Coast-to-coast experience. Didn't you say the check mark was a negative sign in NY? I have to agree with John Cowan on this one.

  38. I said that it was a negative mark in my school when I was growing up. That happens to be in upstate NY. But I don't want to say that it's done a certain way all over NY or any other state, as it's certainly not.

    The tick/checkmark as positive is more widespread than as negative, but the variations are still interesting.

  39. For what it's worth, in Finland we use a little 'v' (which I always understood to be short for väärin or 'wrong') for incorrect answers. The symbol for 'correct', on the other hand, looks like a %, but with dots instead of the circles.

    The 'v' can obviously look like a tick and vice versa and this can cause some confusion among Finns. Someone I know in Finland did an International Baccalaureate and was taught by British and American tutors who used ticks and crosses when marking her work. She had been very distressed when she got her first essay back with a load of what she thought were 'v' symbols scrawled all over it...

  40. Wow. I really love your blog. There's just so much great information and discussion here.

    I have several comments I'd like to leave on "ticks and checkmarks."

    My first comment:
    I grew up in the U.S., Las Vegas to be precise. When I think back to my childhood, I seem to remember it being normal for only the errors in my school work to be marked out by the teacher. I suspect it's this system that allowed for different marks -- like check marks, slashes, X's, etc. -- to be used. I can't remember exactly which marks my teachers used though. But, certainly, marking out the correct answers was not normal.

    2nd Comment:
    Since I grew up in America, I was quite confused the first time I heard "tick." I now live in Asia, but I have a lot of British colleagues and friends and my bosses are British. So, I've have had to learn a lot of new words and phrases in order to understand them.

    3rd Comment:
    (I currently work as an English teacher, by the way.) Although I grew up in America, I've adopted the convention of marking correct answers with a check mark and incorrect answers with an X on my students' spelling quizzes. I must have picked this up by observing someone else do it when I started working here.

    4th Comment:
    When I was very young, I always used "check marks" to mark check boxes when filling out forms. Later, I noticed people using "Xs" to mark those boxes and in the instructions on the form the examples would often show an "X" in the box. So, while I was still in America, I ended up adopting this system.

    5th Comment:
    It's interesting to me that the "tick" and "cross" (AmE: "check mark" and "X") seem to not have a very significant difference in America, while in some other places a "tick" is clearly something positive and a "cross" is clearly something negative. An ex-girlfriend of mine in Las Vegas (who grew up in Beijing until she was high-school aged) ran into some trouble with this. She didn't run into trouble in America, but she ran into trouble when she went back to Beijing to visit. At that time, she was in college/university. When she went back to Beijing during a winter break, she tried to open a bank account. She arrived at the bank in Beijing, got the necessary forms, filled them out, and got in line. When her number was called, she gave the forms to the person at the counter. The person at the counter looked at the forms and said something to the effect of, "What's up with all these crosses? Are you saying 'no' to all these things?" He then rejected the forms and made my her fill out all the forms again.

  41. When I was growing up, homework or tests involving black-and-white, definitively "right or wrong" answers would be marked with either a tick/check (for correct) or a cross (for wrong). Every answer would be marked. Sometimes you'd end up with a tick-turned-into-a-cross, or in other words, "teacher was getting tired and automatically ticked it before actually seeing that the answer was wrong".

    Sometimes, if teachers were feeling generous, we'd get half marks for an answer - situations might include showing correct working in maths but coming out with the wrong figure, or getting the right answer in a vocab test but making a slight mistake with spelling. In these cases, the teacher would use neither a tick nor a cross, but some other squiggle and the 1/2 fraction.

    Regardless, the overall total mark would be put at the top of the page (eg "16/20" or "9/10") sometimes with a "good", "very good" or a dreaded "see me..."

    When it came to longer, less binary marking such as essays, mostly only mistakes were marked. They might be underlined, or the teacher might have their own shorthand. What they all had in common, though, was that a tick next to a paragraph meant "excellent point". A cross next to a paragraph meant "total rubbish" and a question mark meant a point was dubious or unclear. An overall grade would be put at the top of the paper, with or without a personal comment.

    To this day I still get a frisson of pride when I see an essay returned with ticks down the margin!

  42. Growing up all my teachers( and now my kids teachers) used the checkmark, x, and a slash mark all to mark something as incorrect. None of them ever used a mark on correct answers.

    Marking correct answers with a mark of any kind seems strange.

    1. I suppose the point of marking correct answers is
      a)not just criticising errors, but commending correct answers
      b)if an answer is accidentally overlooked by the teacher, it will not be misunderstood as correct

      When we wrote essays, the teacher would go through putting ticks at particularly good bits.

  43. ✓ = good (not usually done on every correct answer, just clever ones or ones the teacher really liked/agreed with)
    X = bad, not even partial credit given

    Happened here in Texas during elementary school in early 1990's all the way through now in graduate school at a University. My girlfriend is a middle school teacher in a different school district than I grew up and also uses checkmarks for positive things and x's for bad. I had never even heard of checkmarks being bad until today.

  44. I grew up in Central Washington state in the 70's and 80's, where a check mark or tick meant the answer was incorrect. Correct answers were left unmarked.

  45. I always get a little bit confused when I see a multiple selection computer interface where checkmarks are rendered as crosses.

  46. I grew up attending French Schools in Canada and would get a cursive letter C, not a check mark, and if things were error free there would just be this giant cursive C covering the page (the grade would be something separate at the top corner, so no I wasn't just getting a bunch of 'C' grades). I've been using the same symbol in my own teaching career for almost 30 years to indicate when work has been checked and is correct. Anyone else come across this? On a side note, I do use little checks or ticks for positive and 'x' for negative.


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