Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Slash It All!

While editing for a client recently, I ran into the phrase small/midsized businesses. Instinctively, I wanted to change it to small-midsized businesses. But why did I think the hyphen was such a better choice than the slash?

The slash, also known as the virgule, solidus, or slant, is a handy piece of punctuation with more usages than names. The problem is that not all of the usages, indeed few of them, are accepted without argument. Those few unarguable usages are:

  • To represent a fraction bar: 1/4
  • To show line breaks in poetry: "The sun that brief December day / Rose cheerless over hills of gray, / And, darkly circled, gave at noon / A sadder light than waning moon."
  • To separate directory and file names in URLs and other paths: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

These usages are common but are sometimes dismissed as too casual:

  • To style dates
    • Between years: the 1998/99–2001/2 school years
    • Between the month, day, and year (whichever order you put them in): 12/12/12
  • To mean per: $35/hour
  • To create an abbreviation: 24/7, c/o

And then there is the usage that I tripped over:

  • To signify alternatives or choices: writer/editor, small/midsized

This last usage causes the most controversy. We can aside the emotional responses that the slash is "ugly," "monstrous," and "a punctuation mark of last resort." Without any explanation of why the slash deserves such labels, the criticism is useless.

The remaining criticism can be sorted into one of three categories.

1. We Have a Hyphen for That

When have language users ever been limited to saying things only one way? The slash shows an equal relationship: I'm a writer/editor. So does the hyphen: I'm a writer-editor. Choose the one that you prefer.

To me the slash indicates individual units: sometimes I'm a writer, sometimes I'm an editor. The hyphen indicates more of a blending: I write and edit on one project. Maybe you're a writer-producer, doing both the writing and the producing on a given project. But because I tend to either write for a project or edit for it, I style myself a writer/editor.

2. It's Too Casual

The appropriateness of casual depends on the type of writing you're doing. An academic paper is certainly formal; abbreviations, slang, and the like are not tolerated. Consider how casual or formal your writing is before dismissing the slash. Also consider how your readers view the slash in terms of being casual. If neither of you think small/midsized business is too casual, why not use it?

On the other hand, if you say The boxes are/were in the corner instead of The boxes are or were in the corner, readers might think you lazy. Didn't you bother to find out which was the case? If you didn't know which the case was, why not just say so?

Casual is in the eye of the beholder. It's a safe bet that academic professors will view the slash as inappropriate in many cases, while personal bloggers will use it without a thought.

3. It's Too Vague

This is probably the most valid argument. The boxes are/were in the corner is as vague as it is casual. Are the boxes in the corner or not?

Other times, though, it's clear the intent is to indicate an alternative or choice:

The winners must execute and return any required affidavit of eligibility and/or liability/publicity release within ten (10) days of winning.

Certainly you could rewrite that as:

The winners must execute and return any required affidavit of eligibility, liability release, publicity release, or any combination thereof within ten (10) days of winning.

But there really isn't any doubt about what the original means, and it's a bit easier to understand.

To Each His/Her Own

Don't just dismiss a useful piece of punctuation without considering the situation. Sometimes the slash is the right choice, perfectly encapsulating the meaning you're trying to get at. Other times, it's vague or too casual for the situation at hand.

Writing is about communicating, even if what you're communicating is art. Punctuation should help the words reach that end. When the slash adds clarity — and your publisher and readers won't descend into apoplectic fits — use it. When it unintentionally causes confusion or brings on said fits, do something else.

In the end, I kept small/midsized business. Not because I thought it was clear (I'm still not sure) but because it was accepted jargon for the audience. They know what it means, and so does the author.

What else matters?

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 10th 2012, 2:19 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
I agree with your comments generally, but a hyphen would have been completely out of place in "small/midsized businesses". This is not a question of jargon. The use of the plural "businesses" indicates separate, countable business entities. A business entity can be small or it can be midsized. It cannot be small and midsized at the same time, which is what your hyphen would have suggested. If you were thinking that the hyphen would indicate "small to midsized business", i.e., size range, that would be wrong too. The idea of range as used with figures (10 to 20, for example) requires an n-dash, which cannot, or should not, be used with words. Your only alternative to the slash here would have been to write out "small or midsized" or "small and midsized" or "small to midsized", or to use the abbreviation SME or SMB.
Monday December 10th 2012, 3:52 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
The name I first learned for the symbol was 'oblique.'
Monday December 10th 2012, 5:25 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Alice, thanks for your comments. While a business might be defined as either small or midsized, a category of businesses might be a range of businesses, from the the smallest to the largest that is allowed to be called "midsized," generally determined by the number of employees or the amount of revenue brought in. In such a case, as this was, the meaning would be "small to midsized business," and a hyphen would be an acceptable option.

As well, an en dash can be used with words depending on which style you follow. For example, "The Chicago Manual of Style" allows the en dash to be used instead of a hyphen in a compound adjective when one element is an open compound or when both elements are hyphenated compounds, as with "the post–World War II years," as well as in a couple of other instances. "The Associated Press Stylebook," on the other hand, doesn't allow en dashes at all.

Victor, thanks for the addition!
Monday December 10th 2012, 8:40 AM
Comment by: Chris B.
I understood small/midsized businesses as a vague range. I also understand your desire to edit out the virgule. I would prefer spelling out the idea of range: small to midsized businesses. Why? Because I read small-midsized as a compound adjective. While small-midsized businesses do exist in the range, the meaning becomes even more vague than the original. And in the end, you made the right choice. If the client gets it, it's good.
Monday December 10th 2012, 9:13 AM
Comment by: Donna M. (Ponca City, OK)
Thank you, I do have a comment, I would like for you to provide a Facebook connection, so I may share your information with my friends and family.
Monday December 10th 2012, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
That's a good point, Chris. I think when you come right down to it, jargon is vague to everyone except those who understand it!
Monday December 10th 2012, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I've never seen the phrase spelled out in corporate communications! It's always SME (small and medium enterprises).
Monday December 10th 2012, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Cynthia S. (Palo Alto, CA)
Your article was well thought out. I often come across the common business usage of the virgule as a simple replacement for the word "or".

Some of the other posts talk to this issue.
Monday December 10th 2012, 11:11 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
I used dashes in a line of poetry to show the inexorable passage of time, and slashes to illustrate the rush of time: "...the old clock tick-tick-ticking out the seconds/minutes/hours until the night is gone." I imagine some stodgy editor grimacing whenever the poem shows up at a desk. Not sure I can win this one.
Tuesday December 11th 2012, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I don't know, Craig, I like "seconds/minutes/hours." It does give me a sense of time rushing by. And I think there's more room to experiment in poetry and literary prose. I would hope that your editors would keep what works and help you adjust what's not so that your vision comes through for the reader.
Thursday December 13th 2012, 11:28 PM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
I like to use the / at work to give equal emphasis to actions that are connected or you can't have one without the other. I cannot think of an example/sample now.

On a lighter note, I just enjoyed reading the post amazed at how it uninterrupted it read with slashes throughout the post. Now I am thinking about the movie Rob Roy where Liam Neeson was slashed almost to the point of losing his life before surprising Tim Roth with a "cut across" the top of the shoulder. Okay, this sounds a little out there and not the lighter note it was meant to be.

Enjoyed it! Okay! Do I get credit for this comment over on Vocabulary.com? :} Love it over there, Thanks, Erin!
Saturday January 5th 2013, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Coby L. (El Cerrito, CA)
The use of the slash seems to be entering spoken language as the word "slash." My six-year-old grandson (who is just beginning to read) recently referred to a meal we were having at 3 PM as "lunch slash dinner."

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