Forward Slash: Not to Be Confused with the Ancient Poet


If you want to impress people, call the forward slash (/)—or just slash—by its more technical names: virgule and solidus (there are subtle differences between those terms, but so subtle that they’ve basically morphed into one). Of course, the best way to impress is to know how this trusty punctuation mark works. Let’s explore the main uses:

  • Internet addresses: Forward slashes pop up the most in Web addresses. There’s not much to say here except to make sure you don’t substitute a backslash (\).
  • Alternates: If there are two, equally viable alternatives placed side by side in a sentence and/or list, you can use a forward slash to show this (notice that there’s no space before or after the slash). In my editorial opinion, too many slashes make gaping holes in the definitiveness of your writing and scream indecision (and, yes, there was a Psycho allusion there).
  • Dates: Fiscal years often do not line up with calendar years (e.g., the fiscal year 2005/6 or 2005/2006). In this case, the slash does not mean a range, as the en dash does; it simply means that you are including parts of two different calendar years.
  • Fractions: Because fractions were once a typographical nightmare (though some typewriters did have 1/2 with one number over the other), the slash saved the day. Today you can use 1/2 or 1/7872 as often as you like—as long as you aren’t working with scientific papers that require more precision and formal equations.
  • Lines of poetry: When quoting a short passage of poetry that’s written out as a part of your sentence (and not quoted exactly as the poem appears), use slashes to show where the lines break: “At the round earth’s imagined corners blow / Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise / From death, you numberless infinities / Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go” (from John Donne).
  • Bowling: This mythical bowling slash means that you somehow managed to clear out the pins and get a spare. I’ve yet to see one in real life on my own bowling scorecard, which is why I deny they exist.

One final note I’d like to emphasize. A slash (in punctuation) is always a forward slash and never a backslash. In fact, the word forward is unnecessary; it was added as an aid. The backslash is currently unused in writing; it’s really a made up mark confined to computerese.

With that in mind—and because I enjoy inventing grammar—who has a creative way that we could add the backslash to the pantheon of punctuation? How could it work?

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2 thoughts on “Forward Slash: Not to Be Confused with the Ancient Poet

  1. Backslash in computerese is often called slosh, and is almost always used as an escape character. Which is to say, slosh removes from the character which follows it any special meaning.

    This would work just fine in English too. So for for example:

    “Fred typed a \. thus ending the sentence.”

    “Sometimes you can use a \; to join what would otherwise be two sentences.

    Neither the full stop nor the semi-colon have the usual effect because they’ve been escaped by the slosh.

  2. That is an interesting suggestion—and practical as well, especially since it ties in with the programming languages. Thanks for playing along.

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