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July 23, 2009

To Slash/Not to Slash--That Is the Question/Quandary

“Punctuation is to make clear the thought expressed.” So say the authors of the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (p. 267), and they’re right, of course.  This sentiment explains some editors’ reservations about the slash (also called a solidus, slant, diagonal, virigule, forward slash, front slash, oblique stroke, or shill). In my years of editing, I’ve noticed that writers like the slash, and use it, but editors tend to, if not detest it, at least eschew it (the MLA Style Manual, for example, declares “the slash, or diagonal, is rarely necessary in formal prose”). Why? Ambiguity. Merriam-Webster’s entry on the slash illustrates perfectly the symbol’s foggy identity, defining it as “and” and “or” and “and or.”

Style, like all well-meaning advice, is sometimes a matter of urgency (e.g., “I would suggest you exit this burning house”) but more often is a matter of taste and discretion. So the sixth edition of the APA Publication Manual cautions readers not “to use a slash when a phrase would be clearer.” Or? And? “X, Y, or both?” APA Style also calls for the use of a hyphen or short dash for simple comparisons. Still, there are times when “and/or” hits the mark best, and this blogger, for one, thinks it’s a serviceable enough construction. Moreover, “and/or” is an entry in the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Other sources echo APA’s cautions. Weighing in on “expressions of equivalence or duality,” the American Medical Association (AMA) allows a forward slash (actually, AMA likes the term virigule) to signify “and” but urges rewording around the virigule “in the likelihood of ambiguity” (p. 353). In Copyediting: A Practical Guide (1990), Judd noted that the slash is used to indicate options (e.g., when you’re going to a party/fete/gala) but reserved its principal use for mathematical copy. The Modern Language Association (MLA) likes the slash for “two terms paired as opposites/alternatives and used together as a noun.” The Chicago Manual of Style seems more tolerant of the slash, noting without commentary that it can be used as shorthand for “or” or “and.” (I’m disappointed that the venerable Words Into Type doesn’t address the slash.)

In sum, the shifty/flexible nature of the slash (and the lack of consensus on its use) reinforces the notion that effective writing and/or editing is always a matter of thinking through the small details.

 

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