October 17, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: slash mark or virgule

Posted in slash mark, virgule at 6:33 am by dlseltzer

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.

Robert Frost

You can use slash marks to separate the numerator and denominator in a fraction:

567/895

 You can use slash marks in Internet addresses:

 https://languagetips.wordpress.com/

 You can use slash marks in dates in informal writing:

 10/17/13

 That’s it!

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!

5 Comments »

  1. Jeff said,

    AP says that it’s “Acceptable in descriptive phrases such as 24/7 or 9/11, but otherwise confine its use to special situations…” like you mentioned above. Great post!

  2. Keith said,

    A virgule is not the same as a solidus.

    See specifically

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_%28punctuation%29#Currency

    or, for a good overview:

    http://planetbizzle.blogspot.co.uk/2007/08/solidus-vs-virgule.html

  3. Ronita said,

    What about a list that has only two or three items and starts with a capitalization.

    Is it
    Companies/manufacturers OR Companies/Manufactures?
    Don’t like/don’t know/no comment OR Don’t like/Don’t know/No comment?

    • Brian Hahn said,

      Ronita,

      I would not use the slash or virgule for those purposes.

      If there is a good reason to expressly say “companies” instead of plainly “manufacturers,” perhaps you could say: “Companies (Manufacturers)” since it seems like the fact that they are companies and not individuals (for example) is important.

      Or vice versa if saying manufacturers are companies is incidental.

      As for your second example, I would also just pick one. It could just state “No comment” or whatever the most appropriate one is. Perhaps you could make the other ones separate choices since “don’t like” and “don’t know” are themselves comments and aren’t “no comment.”

      The only time I would use a virgule in your situation is if two synonyms are used together and both are important to denote. Let’s pretend the word “producers” is jargon that people in the industry might use while “manufacturers” is a layman term. In that case, you might say “Manufacturers/Producers” if not “Manufacturers (Producers).”

  4. Brian Hahn said,

    One situation to add to this blog post is mutually exclusive choices, which is the usual way I use virgules. I’d cite the rule for this, but I no longer remember where I learned this usage. For example:

    Yes/no (mutually exclusive yes or no)
    And/or (mutually exclusive and or or)
    Male/female (though this can be argued otherwise)

    “It was a yes/no question.” (a question that can only have one outcome)

    “Robbery requires larceny along with force and/or intimidation.” (force, intimidation, or both are required)

    But I wouldn’t use it in place of a hyphen: “Paying attention to male-female dynamics is important for moms and dads.”

    I can get fired up discussing virgules because it is widespread in highly casual communication, even spoken out loud as “slash” sometimes! Gives me chills.


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