SLASH /  \  |   ⁄

The slash originated in ancient Rome and was originally used in the way we now use the comma and the dash. However, for convenience, we can look at the modern slash as having four variants:

  • the forward slash / (technically known as the virgule)
  • the backslash \
  • the vertical bar |
  • the solidus    (or the shilling sign).

The solidus does not appear on most computer keyboards (although Apple Mac users can get it by typing Opt+Shift+1). It is the official sign for use with the old British currency (as in £5 ⁄ 2 ⁄ 6) and the divider for complex fractions (1110). It is common to confuse the solidus with the forward slash, but they are different – the solidus is shorter and leans more to the right (less upright) than the regular slash:  ⁄ /.

The backslash (\) is only used in computer code, and we need not bother about it here. Similarly, the vertical bar (|) is mostly used in computer coding, but it is gradually being used in standard typography as a divider, particularly in emails and web pages. I expect that we will see this symbol more frequently used in standard English in the near future.

That leaves us with the forward slash (or virgule). This symbol, though a minor punctuation mark, has a number of common uses in English.

  1. To offer alternatives for the reader:
    • Applicants must have a business and/or economics degree.
    • Each applicant must bring his/her birth certificate to the interview. [This is acceptable, but widely regarded as unattractive in formal prose. Prefer other forms as discussed here.]
    • The applicant must ensure that s/he is well groomed.
       
  2. The slash is the preferred way to present non-partisan options in controversial placenames:
    • He travelled to Burma/Myanmar to help with the relief work.
    • There is peace now in the streets of Londonderry/Derry.
    • The English Channel / La Manche separates England and France. [Note: where either element is a phrase with spaces, then spaces are used on each side of the slash. Use no spaces for all other occurrences.]
       
  3. The slash can replace the hyphen or dash where a we need to express a strong connection between words or phrases:
    • The South Pacific islands are within the New Zealand / Australia sphere of influence. [Note the spaces either side of the slash …]
    • Government policy is in line with the thrust of the Singapore/Australia trade deal. [… but no spaces here.]
       
  4. To express simple fractions, shorthand dates and ratios:
    • 5/6; 3/4; 1/3. [Many typefaces have specially designed fractions that use the solidus and are typographically superior: ¼; ½; ¾. ]
    • 31/12/1999 0r 12/31/1999; 9/11. [The UK and Australia use day/month/year, while the US uses month/day/year].
    • 15 km/h; 9 l/km; 400 g/cm3. [Here the slash replaces the word per. Note that miles per hour is traditionally expressed as mph.]
       
  5. To form certain abbreviations, particularly in legal/commercial contexts:
    • ℅,  c/o,  c/-  (care of)  [Note the typographically correct symbol  ℅.]
    • ℆, c/u  (each or each one)
    • ℀, a/c  (account of or account current)
    • ℁, a/s  (addressed to subject)
    • l/c  (lowercase)
    • w/e (week ending); b/w (between); w/ and w/o (with and without). [Many grammarians frown on these, so it would be wise to limit them to commercial applications.]
    • i/o (input-output); o/o (owner-operator); r/w (read-write). [Note that the spelled out versions of these use a hyphen.]
       
  6. To mark line breaks when quoting poetry, lyrics or lines from a play:
    • Say I’m weary, say I’m sad, / Say that health and wealth have missed me; / Say that I am growing old, but add – / Jenny kissed me. [Rondeau by James Hunt (1784–1859).]
    • And gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. [Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene III.]
    Note: quotations using slashes for line breaks should never exceed four lines. If the quote is longer, then use the standard layout.

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