Slashes  

What is a slash?

The slash ( / )—technically known as a virgule but also called a slant, solidus, or stroke (the common name in British English)—serves a number of purposes in writing, essentially standing in for other words as a quick and clear way of showing the connection between two things. A slash is conventionally used without spaces between it and the words it connects (although it is also common to see spaces used, especially if one or both of the things being joined contain multiple words).
Be aware that using a slash is generally considered informal by style guides, and its use is discouraged in formal, academic, and professional writing. The only time a slash is considered acceptable in formal writing is when citing lines of poetry, which we’ll look at later.
The slash must also not be confused with a backslash ( \ ), which is used in computer programming but not in written English. When a distinction between the two needs to be made, the slash is sometimes referred to as a forward slash.

In place of or

One of the most common uses for the slash is to stand in for the word or, expressing a choice between two things. For example:
  • “Each candidate must be sure to provide his/her references before the interview.”
  • “This is not a simple right/wrong issue; it has much more complexity than that.
  • “Please limit your responses to yes/no.”
  • “Ask your parent/guardian before purchasing any online content.”
It’s also common to find the slash used in this way with shortenings of words. For example, it’s often found used with a shortened form of “she or he” as a way of providing an alternative that looks more gender-neutral, as in:
  • “If any student has concerns, s/he should speak to one of the school’s counselors right away.”
In other constructions, words are represented by their first letter (often capitalized):
  • “The test will consist of 24 T/F [true or false] question and six short-answer questions.”
  • “During the interview, you’ll be asked several Y/N [yes or no] questions.”
Remember, in more formal writing, it is always better to use or instead of a slash, and the shortened words we saw above should be written out in full.

and/or

One somewhat specialized use of the slash is in the term and/or, meaning “one or the other or both.” Because or is already present in the compound, the slash does not represent a second or, but the implication of a choice between the two remains nevertheless. For example:
  • “Upon conviction, drivers may face a fine of $5,000 and/or six months in jail.”
  • “The seminar will be conducted by the general manager and/or an HR representative.”
  • “Expect rain and/or snow over the weekend.”
We can also use and/or with more than two items, generally meaning “one or more.” For example:
  • “Please provide proof of identity, address, current residency status, and/or an existing employment permit (as applicable) when filing your visa application.”
  • “Any and all information, illustrations, and/or downloadable content on this website are purely for educational purposes only.”
Again, and/or should be avoided in any formal, academic, or professional writing. In some cases, and/or can simply be replaced with or in cases when the possible inclusion of the other option is implied, as in:
  • “Expect rain or snow over the weekend.”
  • “Please provide proof of identity, address, current residency status, or existing employment permit (as applicable) when filing your visa application.”
In other instances, and may do the work of and/or, with or being either implied or unnecessary:
  • “Any and all information, illustrations, and downloadable content on this website are purely for educational purposes only.”
Sometimes or is not enough to express this relationship clearly. If we need to make it explicitly clear that one, the other, or both of two options are possible, we could use or and then follow the options with or both. Alternatively, we could replace or with a comma, treating or both as the third item in a list. For instance:
  • “Upon conviction, drivers may face a fine of $5,000 or six months in jail or both.”
  • “The seminar will be conducted by the general manager, an HR representative, or both.”
Finally, if we decide to use and/or, we must be sure that it is grammatically appropriate for the sentence—it can only be used when one or both (or all) options are possible, not when we can choose only one or the other. For example:

In place of per

Another very common use of the slash is to stand in for the word per (or sometimes a/an) when writing about rates. For example:
  • “Rent is $650/month, due on the first day of each month.”
  • “Experts have estimated that the state loses at least 300 million gallons of water a month (or roughly 10 million gallons/day).”
As when the slash replaces the word or, it’s very common to see abbreviated forms of words when the slash is used in place of per. For instance:
  • “Rent is $650/mo., due on the first day of each month.”
  • “Experts have estimated that the state loses at least 300 million gallons of water a month (or roughly 10 million gal./day).”

Expressing connection, conflict, or contrast

It’s also common to see a slash used to express connection, conflict, or contrast between two things, a function that is normally reserved for an en dash (or, more informally, a hyphen) or the Latin loanword cum (meaning in this case “also functioning as” or “as well as being”).

In place of en dashes

We sometimes use an en dash ( ) when we want to express a direct connection between two people, things, or places. It’s not uncommon for slashes to be used instead of en dashes for this purpose: they’re easier to type than en dashes while still maintaining the meaning (which might be lost if we used hyphens instead). Just be aware that the en dash is the preferred punctuation, so you should only use the slash in informal writing. For example:
  • “The president is trying to drum up support for the Mexico–U.S. trade deal.”
  • “The president is trying to drum up support for the Mexico/U.S. trade deal.”
  • “The Republican–Democrat divide on the issue has only widened in recent months.”
  • “The Republican/Democrat divide on the issue has only widened in recent months.”
  • “We will begin boarding the Denver–Chicago–Dublin flight shortly.”
  • “We will begin boarding the Denver/Chicago/Dublin flight shortly.”
  • “The Seattle–New England football game will air at 5 PM (EST).”
  • “The Seattle/New England football game will air at 5 PM (EST).”

In place of cum

The Latin word cum is a preposition meaning “with” (as in the term summa cum laude, “with highest honors”). In modern writing, when joining two or more separate nouns that function as a single entity, it has also come to mean “combined with,” “as well as being,” or “also functioning as.” It is often, but not always, italicized, and it is joined with hyphens between the two things it connects; if we choose to use a slash instead of cum, we replace the hyphens as well as the word. Note that we can also use a single hyphen this way as well. For example:
  • “I built a bicycle-cum-generator to keep the lights on if the power ever goes out.”
  • “I built a bicycle/generator to keep the lights on if the power ever goes out.”
  • “I built a bicycle-generator to keep the lights on if the power ever goes out.”
  • “I started up my own business as an agent-cum-promoter about five years ago.”
  • “I started up my own business as an agent/promoter about five years ago.”
  • “I started up my own business as an agent-promoter about five years ago.”
  • “The novelist-cum-screenwriter has found great success in Hollywood.”
  • “The novelist/screenwriter has found great success in Hollywood.”
  • “The novelist-screenwriter has found great success in Hollywood.”
Note that in some cases, using a slash or hyphen is much more common than using cum. This usually occurs with pairings that have entered common vernacular, as in:
  • “This singer/songwriter’s work never fails to impress.”
  • “The latest film from the acclaimed writer-director is sure to shock audiences.”
However, the slash is still discouraged for more formal writing by many style guides; if in doubt, use a hyphen.

Shorthand abbreviations

In very informal writing—especially quick, shorthand notes or outlines—we often find the slash used to denote certain abbreviated forms of words or phrases. Sometimes the slash represents a portion of a word that is omitted, while other times it is used to join the initials of other words. For example:
  • “Our offices are open M/W/F [Monday, Wednesday, and Friday] from 8 AM to 4 PM.”
  • “The system failed b/c [because] there are problems w/ [with] the database.”
  • “Please send correspondence c/o [care of] my attorney.”
  • “Use hyphens b/w [between] compounds.”
Other abbreviations have become so standard that they’ve been accepted into common vernacular. For example:
  • “Our shop has been open 24/7 [24 hours a day, seven days a week] since we first started up 30 years ago.”
  • “The entire world changed after 9/11 [September 11, 2001, the date of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the United States].”

Expressing fractions

The slash is also used in mathematics to express a fraction—the numerical portion of a larger number. One instance in which we commonly come across this in day-to-day writing is when expressing a value (especially a score) in contrast to the possible maximum. The slash in this case functions in place of the words “out of.” For example:
  • “I loved the movie despite its flaws. I give it 3.5/4 stars.”
  • “Your daughter received a 495/500 on our aptitude test, the highest score we’ve ever seen.”
  • “When an error occurs, 9/10 times it will be due to a human mistake rather than the computer system.”
We can use the same format when writing more standard ratios as well:
  • “I’m already about 3/4 finished, so I should be done by Friday.”
  • “The theater is only about 1/2 full.”
Note that in more formal writing we should try to avoid numerical ratios like these, using full words wherever possible or appropriate. For example:
  • “Your daughter received a 495 out of 500 on our aptitude test, the highest score we’ve ever seen.”
  • “When an error occurs, nine out of ten times it will be due to a human mistake rather than a problem with the computer system.”
  • “I’m already about three-quarters finished, so I should be done by Friday.”
  • “The theater is only about half full.”

Spans between years

When we are writing about something that spans from one year to the next, we can use a slash as an abbreviated way of indicating this range. We do so by placing a slash immediately after the end of the first year (written in full), followed without a space by the last number of the second year. For example:
  • “Could you please forward us your tax information for 1998/9?”
  • “For some reason I’m missing my 2006/7 school transcript.”
It’s also not uncommon to see a two-year span written with the last two numbers of the second year, as in:
  • “The theater’s 2012/13 program is now available for pre-booking.”
  • “The team’s 1978/79 season is still considered its greatest period of success.”
More formally, we would use en dashes to write such ranges. Note as well that we can use en dashes when we write the two years in full, as well as for ranges that span more than two years; however, slashes should not be used for this:

Writing dates

When writing a date numerically, we use a slash between the month and day (and year, if included). For example:
  • “Your appointment has been scheduled for 10/21 [October 21].”
  • “The date of the ceremony is set for 11/16/2019 [November 16, 2019].”
Note that in British English, the day comes before the month:
  • “Your appointment has been scheduled for 21/10.”
  • “The date of the ceremony is set for 16/11/2019.”
Hyphens are also often used for numerical dates, especially in different countries. For instance:
  • “Your appointment has been scheduled for 21-10.”
  • “The date of the ceremony is set for 16-11-2019.”
Note that some style guides consider using the slash to write the date to be informal; for more formal, academic, or professional writing, write out the date in full.

Citing lines of poetry

All of the above uses for the slash are considered by nearly all style guides to be informal (to varying degrees) in proper written English. There is, however, one very specific use for slashes that is considered formally appropriate: denoting line breaks in poetry when it is included as an in-text citation (meaning it is structured into the flow of the overall sentence and paragraph).
When we use a slash in this way, we put a space on either side of it; it is the only circumstance under which spaces are required with a slash.
For example:
  • “These motifs are used in Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ in several famous verses: ‘… Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove: / O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark, / That looks on tempests and is never shaken.’”
Be aware that in-text citation of poetry is generally limited to four or five lines for academic writing; if the citation is longer than that, we include the lines beneath the opening sentence, indented and without quotation marks:
“Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in addition to its moral message, includes one of the simplest yet most horrifying descriptions of being stranded at sea:
  • All in a hot and copper sky,
  • The bloody Sun, at noon,
  • Right up above the mast did stand,
  • No bigger than the Moon.
  • Day after day, day after day,
  • We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
  • As idle as a painted ship
  • Upon a painted ocean.
  • Water, water, every where,
  • And all the boards did shrink;
  • Water, water, every where,
  • Nor any drop to drink.
This passage contains one of the most famous—and often misquoted—lines of the poem.”
Quiz

1. Which of the following is not a common use for the slash?







2. In what way are spaces conventionally used around a slash (not including lines of poetry)?





3. Which of the following is the function of a slash when forming shorthand abbreviations?







4. What is the function of the slash in the following sentence?
“I earned about $300/week when I worked as a landscaper during college.”





5. What is the function of the slash in the following sentence?
“We converted the old barn out back into a bungalow/office.”





6. When are we not able to use a slash when citing poetry?







Further reading

Complete English Grammar Rules is available for purchase as Paperback and Kindle eBook.
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