Trash the slash!
Do you often use the slash (‘/’) in your writing? It often isn’t a good idea. I’ll explain why …
Using the slash
At this point, it’s obligatory for anyone in the editorial world to reel off some alternative names for the slash, so here we go: stroke, solidus, oblique, virgule, diagonal. Just to be clear: I’m only going to talk about the forward slash, and how it’s used in normal sentences rather than in things such as formulas and coding. Also, this is specifically about writing in English – the slash may well have more benefits in some other languages.
When transferring your thoughts onto a page, it’s often tempting to use the slash as a substitute for ‘and’ or ‘or’ (or maybe ‘and/or’ – I’ll come back to that later), or when you’re unsure of which word, term or expression to use.
This is fine when you’re making rough notes, or writing a draft for something that you’re going to tidy up later. But if your finished piece of work is littered with slashes, this can create problems.
People who write about business, management and technology seem especially prone to spraying slashes all over the place. It’s a habit that’s well worth getting out of.
What’s the problem?
There are a few of them …
Does the slash represent ‘and’, ‘or’ or ‘and/or’? Have you even thought about this? The reader will want to know, so it’s best to spell it out for them in words. Let’s take a look at this sentence:
The reviewer/assessor will produce a report.
Hold on … who’s going to produce that report? Is the writer using ‘reviewer’ and ‘assessor’ as two words for the same role? Or are these two separate roles, and will only one of them be responsible for the report? It could mean that both a reviewer and an assessor will produce it jointly; or maybe it’s allowing for two possibilities: just one or the other of them producing it, or the two of them doing it jointly. Do you want your reader to have to ponder all of this?
Not a good look
Slashes don’t look good in normal text – they make it look sloppy, untidy and not very professional. As I suggested earlier, your writing will look more like rough notes than a finished, polished product. The reader may well wonder whether you’ve thought it through properly. Here’s the usual litmus test: do you see frequent use of slashes in material that’s been published professionally, such as books, newspapers and magazines? I doubt it.
In particular, I don’t recommend using a slash as an easy way out when you’re struggling to choose between two words, terms or expressions. It’ll look as though you’re indecisive, you’re unsure of what you’re saying, or you haven’t put in the time and effort to think things through.
Many people ‘hear’ the words their head when they’re reading. What will they hear when they come across, for example, ‘autumn/winter’? They might hear it as ‘autumn slash winter’ (or ‘autumn stroke winter’) and then, because of the ambiguity, pause to wonder what it actually means – see the ‘reviewer/assessor’ example above, but in this case it could even mean the changeover period in late autumn and early winter.
Alternatively, they might pause straight away and consider whether to read it as ‘autumn or winter’, ‘autumn and winter’, etc. Either way, you’re making the reader stumble, and that’s always best avoided.
If at least one of the things being separated by the slash includes a space, things can get tricky. Here’s an example: ‘project sponsor/manager’. Let’s assume the slash means ‘or’ in this case. The wording could be interpreted in two ways: ‘(a) project sponsor or (b) project manager’; ‘(a) project sponsor or (b) manager’.
If it means the latter, putting spaces around the slash can clarify this: ‘project sponsor / manager’. Unfortunately, this is often frowned on, partly because the slash could end up being at the start or end of a line, which would look awkward.
You can avoid this dilemma by getting rid of the slash and using some other way of clarifying the meaning. This will depend on the context as well as your intended meaning, but something like ‘a project sponsor or project manager’ or ‘a project sponsor or a manager’ might do the trick.
Impact on page layout
If the words are long and there are no spaces around the slash, the words will be combined into an even longer unbroken chunk of text. If this appears near the end of a line, it could be forced onto the next line, leaving an unsightly gap at the end of the one above it. Or, if the text is justified (in other words, it forms a straight vertical edge at the right-hand margin), it could create a ‘gappy’ line, with startling amounts of space between the words, or a squashed line, with the opposite problem. Either of these outcomes will distract the reader.
First you need to think carefully about what you’re trying to say, and why you’re considering using a slash.
If you simply mean ‘and’, ‘or’ or ‘and/or’, why not use that instead? Be careful, though: if any of these already appear in the sentence, you’ll need to make sure its overall structure is clear (this is – of course! – one of those many things where an editor or proofreader can help you).
If you’re thinking of using a slash because you haven’t decided which word, term or expression to use, this needs a different approach. First, try to settle on just one of these. Do you really need to use both of them? If you prefer one but still think the other should be mentioned, look for a way to include it – it could be in brackets, for example, maybe with some extra wording to clarify how it fits into the picture.
As usual, there are exceptions …
I’ve said that ‘and/or’ is an alternative to using a slash, even though it includes one itself. Does this actually make sense? I think so: in this case, the meaning of the slash is clear. The whole thing consists of only six characters, so it won’t look especially untidy or mess up the page layout, and it’s certainly better than ‘and or or’. However, ‘and/or’ isn’t ideal for readability, and it’s often used unnecessarily. Whenever you consider using it, think about whether a simple ‘and’ or ‘or’ would make the meaning clear enough; if so, I suggest you use that instead.
Here's a round-up of other exceptions in brief:
I hope this has convinced you that slashes are usually best avoided in normal sentences, although they do sometimes serve a useful function. The main aim should be to make things clear, smooth and easy for the reader, and that generally means using words instead of ungainly, often ambiguous punctuation marks such as the slash.
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Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.