The Communications Skills Company

Providing onsite training courses for professional adults in writing, speaking, listening, and reading for over 51 years!

Communications Pointer:

Beware the slash!

Using a slash to connect two words makes it difficult for the reader to understand what a writer intends.

When we ask writers who use the slash what it means, they usually say the slash means either or both words. Such an interpretation frequently makes no sense at all, because the sentence very clearly must be read either disjunctively or conjunctively—that is, with either an and or an or in the place of the slash. The troubles of interpreting a slash are compounded when a sentence contains three words connected by two slashes. Such sentences are amenable to seven different interpretations.

We therefore suggest five things:

1. If the slash means and, write and. If the slash means or, write or. You may also want to consider the use of either . . . or, neither . . . nor, and both . . .  and. However, it is best not to use and/or.

Poor:  The system had automatic/manual controls.
Good:  The system had automatic and manual controls.
Poor:  In this case, you may use a comma/semicolon to punctuate this sentence.
Good:  In this case, you may use a comma or semicolon to punctuate this sentence.
Poor:  Actor/director/producer Sydney Pollack died in 2008.
Good:  Actor, director, and producer Sydney Pollack died in 2008.
Poor:  The Greek/Roman conflict caused many injuries.
Good:  The conflict between the Greeks and Romans caused many injuries.
Better:  The Greek-Roman conflict caused many injuries.
Poor:  Avoid the use of the slash/virgule/solidus/diagonal/oblique.
Good:  Avoid the use of the slash, also known as the virgule, solidus, diagonal, or oblique.

Here is an example where the use of the slash makes the writing difficult to read, not just difficult to understand.

Poor:  The lawyer’s practice areas are—

            •  Employment/Sexual Harassment/Wrongful Termination
            •  Commercial Contract/General Business
            •  Partnership/Shareholder Disputes
            •  Probate/Trusts & Estates, Accounting/Taxation
Good:  The lawyer’s practice areas are—

            •  Employment, sexual harassment, and wrongful termination
            •  Commercial contracts and general business
            •  Partnership and shareholder disputes
            •  Probate, trusts, and estates
            •  Accounting and taxation

2. Do not use the slash in the place of a comma. You may note that sentences, such as the following, frequently exhibit the characteristics of a Chinese Box, a type of Jabberwocky.

Poor:  The system contained radar/manual/optical controls.
Good:  The system contained radar, manual, and optical controls.

Or did the writer really mean this?

Good:  The system contained manual and optical controls for the radar system.

3. Do not use the slash in the place of a hyphen or N dash. Style manuals do not always agree on which mark (hyphen or N dash) should be used, but almost always prescribe one mark or the other, not a slash.

Poor:  We traveled the Baltimore/Washington Parkway.
Good:  We traveled the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
Poor:  Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce
Good:  Huntsville–Madison County Chamber of Commerce [The N dash is most often prescribed for this type of situation.]
Poor:  Fiscal year 2013/14
Good:  Fiscal year 2013-14

4. Restrict the use of the dash to the following:

5. The challenge: If you are tempted to use the slash in cases other than those indicated in paragraph 4, we challenge you to rewrite your sentence without the slash. Then compare the sentence with the slash to the one without.

We have no doubt you will find that it is the sentence without the slash. By the way, sometimes the sentence without the slash may be a little longer than the one with the slash, but chances are that the sentence without the slash will say what you really mean. Here’s one more example to demonstrate our point:

Before:  There are actually unofficial rules about appropriate combinations of brown/black shoes, brown/black socks, and brown/black belts based on the color of your clothes and the color of the belt/sock/shoe you are wearing. Typically, they should be the same color. [40 words]
After:  There are actually unofficial rules about appropriate combinations of shoes, socks, and belts. First, they should be chosen to match the color of your suit; second, these items should all be the same color. For example, never wear black shoes with a brown belt. [44 words]