Ask professional writers what worries them most about the day-to-day routine of their work and they’ll all give you the same answer: terror at the thought that some day they will run out of ideas and be wracked by paralyzing writers’ block. Then they will start to breathe fast and have a minor panic attack just thinking about it.
You’ll have to dim the lights and murmur soft reassurances for about 15 minutes before your writer friend recovers. Then you can explain that you meant the most difficult technical part of the writing process.
“Oh, right,” your friend will say. “Punctuation, hands down.”
Even accomplished professional writers who work with text daily may be uneasy dealing with punctuation. We could call it a love/hate relationship, but we won’t (for reasons that will be made clear very soon). Commas, semicolons, and quotation marks seem to be the most troublesome, and we will discuss them in their own season. Today, in the first of a new series of articles, we’re looking for a more exotic quarry—a punctuation symbol that is used very rarely.
And yet people still manage to mess it up.
Say Hello to the Slash
The punctuation mark that’s probably paired with the question mark on your keyboard has many names: solidus, slash, diagonal, forward slash, forward stroke, oblique, virgule, or slant. It makes an occasional appearance in text when the writer wants to indicate dates (e.g., 10/31 for Halloween) or fractions (3/7 for three-sevenths), although some typography experts prefer a slightly modified symbol to indicate division.
Most often, the slash appears between two terms to force a choice between the alternatives: male/female, yes/no, and the like. In this use, the slash may be substituting for another bit of punctuation (often an en dash) or for the word “or.” Frequently—but not always—the slash indicates an “exclusive or” function, where the options are limited to one or the other alternatives but not both.
The slash can occasionally be useful in casual writing. The problem is that it is intended to resolve ambiguity, and it does so poorly because it has an ambiguous character itself. A few paragraphs ago, we rejected the phrasing “love/hate relationship” for just that reason. According to the standard rules for interpreting the slash, “love/hate” would be interpreted as “either love or hate, but not both,” but we know that the conventional meaning of the phrase is exactly the opposite: a mixture of love and hatred that is never wholly one or the other.
Pesky Punctuation Muddles Meaning
If you want precision in your writing, the slash is generally not your friend. Worse, the slash also appears in a handful of specific phrases that actively undercut clear writing; avoid using these in website content:
This is frequently used to signify “not available” or “not applicable,” but only fulfills that meaning by jettisoning the usual “or” meaning of the slash.
This phrasing is universally derided by usage manuals and (because it appears in many legal documents) by scholars of the law alike. Most authorities recommend rewriting to some variation of “either x or y or both.”
Another violation of the “or” function of the slash. This was a moderately witty turn of phrase a decade ago, but now it’s stale. Reword to avoid the cliché.
s/he, his/her, he/she, and other variants.
Because there’s no singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun, people have been using the slash to create alternatives. None of these choices is satisfying, and some will irritate readers by seeming to go too far toward political correctness. You are probably best served by using one gender consistently throughout the piece or by revising to use plural forms.
There is no absolute ban on using the slash in your professional website. Rather, we encourage you to use all punctuation thoughtfully, with close attention to how punctuation works in cooperation with your words to build to the specific effect you want.
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