Prime (symbol)

Double prime Triple prime Combining prime

The prime symbol (  ), double prime symbol (  ), triple prime symbol (  ), quadruple prime symbol (  ) etc., are used to designate units and for other purposes in mathematics, the sciences, linguistics and music. The prime symbol should not be confused with the apostrophe, single quotation mark, acute accent, or grave accent; the double prime symbol should not be confused with the double quotation mark,[1] the ditto mark, or the letter double apostrophe. The prime symbol is very similar to the Hebrew geresh, but in modern fonts the geresh is designed to be aligned with the Hebrew letters and the prime symbol not, so they should not be interchanged.

Designation of units

The prime symbol (′) is commonly used to represent feet (ft), arcminutes (am), and minutes (min). However, for convenience, a (') (single quote mark) is commonly used.

The double prime (″) represents inches (in), arcseconds (as), and seconds (s). However, for convenience, a (") (double quotation mark) is commonly used.

Thus, 3′ 5″ could mean 3 feet and 5 inches (of length) or 3 minutes and 5 seconds (of time). As an angular measurement, 3° 5′ 30″ means 3 degrees, 5 arcminutes and 30 arcseconds.

The triple prime () in watchmaking represents a ligne. It is also occasionally found in historical astronomical works to denote thirds (160 of a second of arc[2][3]).[4][5]

Likewise, a quadruple prime (⁗) denotes fourths (160 of a third, a convention already used by Jamshīd al-Kāshī).

Use in mathematics, statistics, and science

In mathematics, the prime is generally used to generate more variable names for things which are similar, without resorting to subscripts – x generally means something related to or derived from x. For example, if a point is represented by the Cartesian coordinates (x,y), then that point rotated, translated or reflected might be represented as (x,y). The prime symbol is not related to prime numbers.

Usually, the meaning of x is defined when it is first used, but sometimes its meaning is assumed to be understood:

The prime is said to "decorate" the letter to which it applies. The same convention is adopted in functional programming, particularly in Haskell.

In physics, the prime is used to denote variables after an event. For example, vA′ would indicate the velocity of object A after an event. It is also commonly used in relativity: The event at (x, y,  z, t) in frame S has coordinates (x, y, z, t) in frame S.

In chemistry, it is used to distinguish between different functional groups connected to an atom in a molecule, such as R and R, representing different alkyl groups in an organic compound. The carbonyl carbon in proteins is denoted as C, which distinguishes it from the other backbone carbon, the alpha carbon, which is denoted as Cα.

In molecular biology, the prime is used to denote the positions of carbon on a ring of deoxyribose or ribose. The prime distinguishes places on these two chemicals, rather than places on other parts of DNA or RNA, like phosphate groups or nucleic acids. Thus, when indicating the direction of movement of an enzyme along a string of DNA, biologists will say that it moves from the 5′ end to the 3′ end, because these carbons are on the ends of the DNA molecule. The chemistry of this reaction demands that the 3 prime OH is extended by DNA synthesis. Prime can also be used to indicate which position a molecule has attached to, such as 5′-monophosphate.

Use in linguistics

The prime can be used in the transliteration of some languages, such as Slavic languages, to denote palatalization. Prime and double prime are used to transliterate Cyrillic yeri (the soft sign, ь) and yer (the hard sign, ъ).[6]

Originally, X-bar theory used a bar over syntactic units to indicate bar-levels in syntactic structure, generally rendered as an overbar. While easy to write, the bar notation proved difficult to typeset, leading to the adoption of the prime symbol to indicate a bar. (Despite the lack of bar, the unit would still be read as "X bar", as opposed to "X prime".) With contemporary development of typesetting software such as LaTeX, typesetting bars is considerably simpler; nevertheless, both prime and bar markups are accepted usages.

Some X-bar notations use a double-prime (standing in for a double-bar) to indicate a phrasal level, indicated in most notations by "XP".

Use in Rubik's Cube notation

In Rubik's Cube move notation the prime is used to invert moves or move sequences (e.g., L means "turn the left face 90 degrees clockwise", whereas L′ means "turn the left face 90 degrees counter-clockwise").

Use in music

Prime, double prime and triple prime

The prime symbol is used in combination with lower case letters in the Helmholtz pitch notation system to distinguish notes in different octaves from middle C upwards. Thus c represents the C below middle C, c′ represents middle C, c″ represents the C in the octave above middle C, and c the C in the octave two octaves above middle C. A combination of upper case letters and sub-prime symbols is used to represent notes in lower octaves. Thus C represents the C below the bass stave, while C ͵ represents the C in the octave below that.

In some musical scores, the double prime (″) is used to indicate a length of time in seconds. It is used over a fermata denoting a long note or rest.


The name "prime" is something of a metonymy. Through the early part of the 20th century, the notation x was read as "x prime" not because it was an x followed by a "prime symbol", but because it was the first in the series that continued with x ("x second") and x‴ ("x third"). It was only later, in the 1950s and 1960s, that the term "prime" began to be applied to the apostrophe-like symbol itself. Although it is now more common to pronounce x″ and x‴ as "x double prime" and "x triple prime", these are still sometimes pronounced in the old manner as "x second" and "x third".


Prime, double prime and triple prime

Unicode and HTML representations of the prime and related symbols are as follows.

Character Unicode HTML entity
Prime (  ) U+2032 ′ ′
Double prime (  ) U+2033 ″ ″
Triple prime (  ) U+2034 ‴ ‴
Reversed prime (  ) U+2035 ‵ ‵
Reversed double prime (  ) U+2036 ‶
Reversed triple prime (  ) U+2037 ‷
Quadruple prime (⁗) U+2057 ⁗ ⁗
Modifier letter prime ( ʹ ) U+02B9 &#697
Modifier letter double prime ( ʺ ) U+02BA &#698

The "modifier letter prime" and "modifier letter double prime" characters are intended for linguistic purposes, such as the indication of stress or the transliteration of certain Cyrillic characters.

When the character set used does not include the prime or double prime character (e.g., ISO 8859-1 is commonly assumed on IRC), they are often respectively approximated by normal or italic apostrophes and quotation marks.

In LaTeX math mode, f' (f with an apostrophe) is rendered as . Furthermore, LaTeX provides an oversized prime symbol, \prime () for use in subscripts and superscripts. For example, f_\prime^\prime appears as .

See also


  1. Goldberg, Ron (2000). "Quotes". In Frank J. Romano. Digital Typography: Practical Advice for Getting the Type You Want When You Want It. San Diego: Windsor Professional Information. pp. 67–69. ISBN 1-893190-05-6. OCLC 44619239.
  2. E.g., in Herschel, William (1785). "Catalogue of Double Stars". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 75: 40–126. doi:10.1098/rstl.1785.0006. JSTOR 106749.
  3. Schultz, Johann (1797). Kurzer Lehrbegriff der Mathematik. Zum Gebrauch der Vorlesungen und für Schulen (in German). Königsberg. p. 185.
  4. Wade, Nicholas (1998). A natural history of vision. MIT Press. p. 193. ISBN 978-0-262-73129-4.
  5. Lewis, Robert E. (1952). Middle English Dictionary. University of Michigan Press. p. 231. ISBN 978-0-472-01212-1.
  6. Bethin, Christina Y (1998). Slavic Prosody: Language Change and Phonological Theory. Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-52-159148-5.
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