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?