The usual suspects stand 7½ inches high in a stack next to my computer. They moderate my dogma against what I think lazy or muddled use of punctuation or language by nicely telling me that I am wrong or, worse, that I have become woefully out of date.
No, I don’t wear a string of pearls, hang my reading glasses around my neck, stuff a tissue in the sleeve of my cardigan sweater, or wear my hair swept up in a bun, though my gray strands have thickened to streaks that I fear will dominate my hair soon enough. But I do become cranky about usage trends that render the language imprecise.
My problem is the slash or virgule. It seems to pop up everywhere, from a syllabus for a graduate class to a book assigned in another class. On the syllabus, the assessment subsection head includes “Exam/Term Paper and Class Participation.” Good, I thought, I will be able to pick whether to take the exam or write a paper. But no, as I read on I see there is no choice. The exam is to be written as an essay. Should that expression then be considered a compound modifier of a compound word and expressed with an en dash instead of a slash—“examination–term paper”? The book, on the other hand, discusses a collaborative “Harvard/MIT” study. Clearly, this should have been a hyphen rather than a slash.
But most frequently, I find excessive use of the virgule in the medical research articles I edit. Its prevalence in these articles always surprises me because by nature the virgule is ambiguous while science writing aims at precision—to the point of putting readers to sleep: no active verbs, few identifiable subjects, only statements that remain within the bounds of the data, and no causation, just associations.
So am I justified in being annoyed at what I consider an over-reliance on the slash? As a reader, I favor words and punctuation that make ideas clear. And while I am scrupulous about taking out an and/or construction, as is the mandate of our style manual, by stretching “red and/or white” to “red, white, or both,” I consider my irritation justified when confronted with extending its use to what was submitted in a table footnote for an article I recently edited:
Rescue was defined as any pharmacological/electrical/surgical intervention for the termination/prevention of AF [atrial fibrillation]/flutter…
I dutifully changed it:
Rescue was defined as any pharmacological, electrical, or surgical intervention for the termination or prevention of AF [atrial fibrillation] or flutter…
Although I was correct in determining that the slashes suggested an alternative, I could have guessed they meant a series.
Before checking the books, I confirm that the symbol of the virgule, which comes from the Latin virgula, “a little bough, twig; a rod, staff,”1 is defined as a slash in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.2 Clearly, it looks like what it means, a visual mnemonic perhaps? My understanding of the punctuation mark is that the virgule can mean and or it can mean or, or as my poet-husband suggests, it classically means and/or.
So now to the stack. First up, the AMA Manual of Style,3 which in the introductory paragraph of the Forward Slash (Virgule, Solidus) section says that the virgule “is used to represent per, and, or or and to divide material (eg, numerators and denominator in fractions; month, day, and year in dates [only in tables and figures]; lines of poetry).” Then comes the first major discussion under the section, which says that the slash expresses equivalency “[w]hen 2 terms are of equal weight in an expression and and is implied” and provides the following example:
The diagnosis and initial treatment/diagnostic planning were recorded.
With this definition in mind, how do my above examples stand up to the test? MIT would probably not quibble with being viewed as equivalent to Harvard, but I still think in this case they are functioning, in their capacity as the generators of a study, as a compound modifier and should be hyphenated, even though and is implied. I think the same goes for my “exam/essay” example because and is not implied. They are a single concept as the major assessment for the class. And for my table footnote, while they represent equivalent interventions, the word and is not implied, but the expression “termination/prevention” could have been left alone as equivalent ideas. However, I think changing “AF/flutter” to “AF or flutter” was correct because I don’t think the experience is equivalent. (However, I am told by one of our medical editors that AF/flutter is so constructed because a patient’s heart rhythms may vacillate between the 2 states so that treatment and outcome are similar, thereby, demonstrating another example of the virgule serving as a visual reality.)
Fowler’s Modern English Usage4 and The Elements of Style5 are silent on the matter. The Associated Press Stylebook6 allows its use only to describe “phrases such as 24/7 or 9/11” and advises writers and editors to “otherwise confine its use to special situations, as with fractions or denoting the ends of a line in quoted poetry.”
The Chicago Manual of Style7 says, “A slash most commonly signifies alternatives. In certain contexts it is a convenient (if somewhat) informal shorthand for or. It is also used for alternative spellings or names. Where one or more of the terms separated by slashes is an open compound, a space before and after the slash can be helpful.” Although coming at it from the alternative angle rather than equivalent angle, I think my editing still stands. Nevertheless, I think the Chicago Manual captures the spirit of the slash in response to the speed brought on by the age of the Internet and people like my boss, who said, “I like it. It’s fast.”
As for me, the confusion of meaning slows me down. I vote for words.—Beverly Stewart, MSJ
1. University of Notre Dame. Latin dictionary and grammar aid Web page. http://www.nd.edu/~archives/latin.htm. Accessed July 16, 2012.
2. Virgule. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:1397.
3. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.
4. Burchfield RW. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd rev ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2004.
5. Strunk W, White EB. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York, NY: Longman; 2000.
6. Goldstein N, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2007.
7. The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2010.