How do you use this slippery piece of punctuation: the slash?

The slash (/)—sometimes called a slant, a solidus, a stroke, or a virgule—is a commonly employed symbol in the English language. Whatever you want to call this piece of punctuation, its role in English has greatly changed over time.

The word slash first entered English in the late 14th century as a verb to describe the cutting movement of a weapon, a word derived from the Middle French esclachier, meaning “to break.” The noun form of slash came into the language in the 1500s, but it was not until much later (the 1960s) that the term “slash” was used to represent the (/) symbol we know and love today.

Compare this with “virgule,” which entered English in the 1830s from the French word for “comma.” In medieval manuscripts, a virgule or slash was often used in place of today’s comma. Chaucer notably used virgules to represent caesuras in his Middle English manuscripts. We still have traces of this usage in modern written English; line breaks in poetry and songs are denoted by the slash, often with a space on either side. (Learn more about the comma here.)

Slashes are commonly used to signify alternatives as in “and/or” and “his/her,” and they can also appear in place of the word “and,” as in “She’s a writer/producer/actor.” Slashes are used in abbreviations like “a/c” (account current, air conditioning),  “w/o” (without), “w/r/t” (with respect/regard to), and “c/o” (care of, cash order, certificate of origin), and they’re also used in place of the word “per” in phrases like “50 miles/hour.” Additionally, slashes separate numbers in written English as in dates and fractions.

Further uses of the slash have developed relatively recently in the technological sphere. Every URL for every website you visit contains what we call slashes or forward slashes (/), not to be confused backslashes (\), which point in the opposite direction and are primarily used in programming languages. In fact, to distinguish the old slash (/) from the newer technical  backslash (\), the term “forward slash” entered English in the 1980s as a retronym, much in the same way that “snail mail” became a term for what was once just called “mail.”

An interesting aspect of this popular symbol is its ability to be verbalized in various ways depending on the context. You can be in a “love/hate” relationship (slash not pronounced), or you can “love-slash-hate” someone (slash pronounced). In the UK you might call this same predicament a “love-stroke-hate” situation. Some English-language writers have fun with the slash, directing their readers to say it aloud by typing out the word “slash” or “stroke” where the symbol (/) would logically belong.

Like many typographic symbols, the slash has found its very own special place in pop culture. Around the mid-1980s when computers started becoming prevalent, the term “slash fiction” emerged in English. Slash fiction is a type of fan fiction, usually appearing on online forums, that pairs two same-sex characters together in a romantic relationship. This genre got its name because oftentimes the characters featured in this sort of fan fiction are separated by a (/) symbol in the title or description of the story. Pride and Prejudice fans out there—if you click on a “Bingley/Darcy” link in a Jane Austen forum, be prepared for what you are about to read.

How do you use the slash? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments.