Thrash the Slash

There have always been words that people use to show they’re cool—words like cool, which gained wide acceptance in the 1940s, unseating swell, keen, and spiffy.

And there have always been trendy phrases. In the 1970s, no one who was cool said in conclusion or in the last analysis. It was all about the bottom line—a phrase still in use, although it has been eclipsed by at the end of the day.

But now, perhaps for the first time, a punctuation mark is all the rage. It’s the forward slash, also known as the virgule, solidus, slant, separatrix, and whack. It is the only mark with more names than legitimate uses.

To most of us who care about the written word, the omnipresent slash is about as welcome as a fox/piranha in the henhouse/bathtub.

It appears we have computer technology to thank for this symbol’s unlikely emergence. The slash has become indispensable for URLs and any number of online activities. But that hardly makes it compatible with proficient writing.

The slash has always been a handy tool for taking notes and writing rough outlines. Substituting w/o for without, y/o for years old, and b/c for because can save valuable time and space.

However, most slashes can—and should—be removed from a final draft. Writers who keep a construction like any man/woman in their finished work instead of replacing it with any man or woman are telling their readers, “I don’t have enough time or respect for you to write all this small stuff out.”

Our offices are teeming with an eclectic range of grammar primers, reference books, and style guides. Although many of these volumes have entire sections on punctuation marks, only a handful even acknowledge the ignoble slash. The consensus is that a slash has two principal uses:

• To separate numbers in dates (9/11/2001) and fractions (½).

• To denote the original line breaks in quoted poetry (“Celery, raw / Develops the jaw”).

Here are some recent examples of slash-mania:

They can indeed be responsible and successful statesmen/stateswomen. (Would it kill you to write “statesmen and stateswomen”?)

Using the pass/fail option backfired on her. (How about “pass-fail”?)

An amateur might find him/herself in trouble. (Amateurs might find themselves in trouble.)

I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me. (I don’t open letters or other mail that isn’t addressed to me.)

Try this experiment: say “I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me” out loud to someone. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?


Pop Quiz

This might be the easiest pop quiz yet. Suggested fixes are below.

1. When/if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent/guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles/gallon.
4. The actor/director/producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. When and if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent or guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles per gallon.
4. The actor-director-producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.

Posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, at 4:16 pm

11 Comments on Thrash the Slash

11 responses to “Thrash the Slash”

  1. Wilford L. says:

    What about and/or? You may choose the red one and/or the blue one.

    • We had talked about and/or in a newsletter several months ago, so we were concerned about repetition. Also, we did not want to make this week’s grammar tip too long. However, we are now thinking and/or may be conspicuous by its absence. We are considering it for next week’s newsletter.

  2. Stephen B. says:

    I very much enjoy reading your e-newsletter every week. I’m a scientist who writes scientific papers and edits others for colleagues (unpaid!). I am thus very aware of grammar and interested in producing intelligible, concise text (although I still make mistakes!).

    In this week’s newsletter, however, I disagree with you about the use of a slash in your pop quiz example: miles/gallon. The slash can also mean “divided by”, as in your other example, ½. Thus, “miles/gallon” means “miles divided by gallon”, or “miles per gallon”. That said, in scientific publications, we don’t even use the dash in this way; we use miles gallon-1 (with the exponent “minus one”, meaning that “gallon” is in the denominator, and sometimes a dot between “miles” and “gallon”).

    BTW (if you will permit me to use e-mail acronyms), I have always been confused by the placement of a comma or a period in conjunction with quotes. You will notice I have several such examples in the above sentences. In scientific writing, at least, we always place the comma outside of the quotes. In novels and other texts, I see that the comma or period is always placed within the quotes (which never looks correct to me). You may have already discussed this in a past e-mail; if so, kindly point me to that discussion. Otherwise, I would be most interested in becoming informed about this. Thank you,

    • It is possible that your confusion about the placement of periods and commas in relation to quotation marks is due to your living in Canada, where you may be exposed to both British and American English rules. Unfortunately, the rules are different. Please see our web page about Quotation Marks, especially our introductory comment immediately above the rules.

      Inconsistency between British and American rules may also spill over into the scientific realm. We have been part of scientific organizations here in the U.S., but have not seen the expression miles gallon-1 (exponent -1).

  3. David P. says:

    slash is slang for urinating in many English speaking countries. May explain why other words have come into vogue.

    • After checking our slang dictionaries, we see that slash is indeed slang for urination, especially in Commonwealth countries. We American English speakers were not aware of that. Thank you for the interesting information.

  4. Matteo Cortese says:

    I think that constructs like “pass/fail” and “pass-fail” convey different meanings. The former implies that the two terms are mutually exclusive, while the latter seems to suggest “both pass and fail.” I would therefore agree on “the actor-director Troy Biffley” (because he indeed is both), but I would rather say “avoid yes/no questions.”

    In addition to this, I second Stephen B.’s remark that the slash has a legitimate use in scientific texts, where it is universally known to mean a ratio and where expanding it to “per” would make the prose unnecessarily longer.

    As to Stephen’s question about commas and quotes, I think that his confusion may be explained by his having a scientific angle: the American English rule would make any rational mind scream!

  5. Ron S. says:

    OMG! Up to now I thought I was alone in the world in my disdain for the slash. Thank you,, for returning my sanity!

    I work for an inter-governmental organization with around 2700 staff. About 20 years ago I started to see the slash insinuating it into our publications, and at first I did not pay it any heed. Since then, it has become to many people (especially younger people who are unaware of writing styles before they learned how to write) a universal punctuation mark. I have seen it in place of the comma, the semi-colon, the dash, the hyphen, and of course as a substitute for two of language’s most important conjunctions, “or” and “and”.

    Our Director of Communications, for cripes sake, refuses to even talk about it with me. She considers the spread of the slash as normal language evolution, no more alarming than the use of “impact” as a transitive verb. I argue that the difference between the examples she gives and my complaints about the slash is that I’m talking about increased ambiguity. If somebody writes “ain’t” instead of “is not”, I might cringe, but at least I still understand the writer’s meaning.

    I experience the diminution of clarity engendered by the slash every working day. Just yesterday one of my colleagues wrote to ask whether I would be available for a meeting on 3/4 May. I responded, “Do you mean 3 OR 4 May, or 3 AND 4 May?” He replied, “3 AND 4 May. It will only take a couple of hours.” I said, “Unless you are planning the meeting from 11 p.m. on the 3rd to 1 a.m. on the 4th, I think you actually mean OR.”

    I was brought up to believe in the idea of reader sovereignty. That is to say, unless you are writing fiction and don’t care what your readers think about it, what matters is conveying your idea clearly. And that means minimizing ambiguity.

    Nowadays the watchword is speed. Many colleagues justify using the slash because they save a few micro seconds. I remind them that their saving is at the cost of many multiples of that time lost by their readers.

    Sure, in many cases I can suss out what a writer means by a slash. But if I care about what he or she is trying to tell me, it takes extra time. Slashes (except used in ways that people used them prior to 20 years ago) are like speed bumps in the road. And they are ugly.

    What writers nowadays also don’t appreciate is that by extending the possible meanings of a slash, they have collectively rendered prior meanings ambiguous.

    A few months ago, I came across an abstract to a paper published in an academic journal containing the phrase, “If the index of price/cost is greater than 1”. I assumed the author was speaking of a price-to-cost ratio. Only reading further did I learn that he meant “If the index of the price or of the cost is greater than 1.” Thanks, sir, for the ambiguity!

    Finally, in response to Matteo Cortese. Yes, I can see that your construct does not lead to ambiguity if followed rigorously. But it never is, and I see all manner of shades of grey in its application. In any case, the distinction is not needed. If you think about it, if the connected words are truly polar opposites, like “pass” and “fail”, nobody will read “pass-fail” as meaning both, because clearly they are exclusive alternatives!

  6. Safwat G. says:

    Thanks a lot for the valuable information on your site.

    On other hand, I have a question regarding Slashes.

    As I have a sentence says” 35% Flat Discount on all new wells/equipment only”.

    Does this means: ” 35% Flat Discount on all new wells or new equipment only”., if not could you help me and explain what the right explanation for such sentence.

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