October 17, 2013
Weekly Language Usage Tips: slash mark or virgule
Tip: Slash mark/virgule
A reader writes:
I increasingly see the use of a virgule as a substitute for the word “and.” Is this correct? Here’s an example from a student paper:
Prisoners are entitled to decent medical/mental health treatment.
I know what you are thinking. What the heck is a virgule? Yeah, me, too. I just knew it as a slash mark. But it does have this fancy name—I looked it up—it is also called a solidus. In French, it means ‘comma,’ and it comes from the Latin virgula which means ‘little twig’ or ‘little rod.’
So, is it correct to use a slash mark as a replacement for the word, ‘and’? Of course not, and especially not in formal writing, which I imagine includes the student’s paper. The slash mark has some legitimate uses, and here they are:
You can use slash marks (or virgules) to separate running lines of poetry:
Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though; / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.
You can use slash marks to separate the numerator and denominator in a fraction:
You can use slash marks in Internet addresses:
You can use slash marks in dates in informal writing:
People use them for other purposes, too, but that’s generally frowned upon. As Garner put it:
“…the virgule is a mark that doesn’t appear much in first-rate writing.”
Other uses include these—I don’t want to highlight these because I don’t want you to use them—to mean ‘per’ as in miles/gallon, to mean ‘and’ or ‘or’ as in ‘while making health care decisions, we must address autonomy/costs/diagnoses.’ In this last example, using ‘and’ or ‘or’ or other equivalent words would result in a stronger sentence.
While making health care decisions, we must address patient autonomy and costs as well as diagnoses.
In the former example, I would just use ‘per’ to mean ‘per’:
The apples cost three dollars per dozen.
This car gets nearly thirty five miles per gallon.
The bottom line is: try not to use the slash mark for purposes other than those I laid out above. If you must use it occasionally to mean ‘per’ or ‘and’ or ‘or,’ do so sparingly. Spare the rod; you won’t spoil the child!