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Grammar Tip: How to Use the Slash

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Ready to Slash Your Habits?

Looking to slash your regular writing habits? If you’re a Chicago-style writer, you’re in luck! AP writers, on the other hand, might want to look at other options. Check out what the AP vs. Chicago blog advises on using the slash.

Slashes: Uses and Restrictions

Misunderstood. Abused. Ignored. No, not me. Well, maybe that too, but I'm referring to the beleaguered slash, which you may know as a diagonal, virgule, solidus, slant, stroke, oblique stroke, separatrix, shilling mark, or forward slash (the low-self-esteem retronym which seeks to distinguish the slash [/] from the backslash [\]).

With this many names and almost as many roles—providing alternatives, adding, abbreviating, separating, joining—the slash is like the understudy who also prints the flyers and strikes the set along with the stage crew. Even so, The Associated Press Stylebook chose to exclude the slash from the "Punctuation" section, acknowledging it with a thirty-word chin nod in the main section instead. (It could be worse: The en dash was completely forsaken.)

It may surprise you to learn that the most common usage of the slash, as a signifier of alternatives/options/choices, has been barred in AP style; slashes are acceptable only in certain phrases and "special situations," such as with fractions. A heavy user of slashes and other intoxicating punctuation, such as semicolons, I do admit to relying upon them to organize the contents of my brain when I'm in a hurry. And why not? They're free, and I can use the time I'm saving for more important tasks, like chewing properly.

Slashes: Differences Between AP and Chicago Style

AP: We never said that slashes are tacky or that using them is lazy, but we're cool with those inferences. Here are the acceptable uses.

  • With fractions
  • Between lines of quoted poetry
  • In Internet addresses (URLs) and pathnames
  • In descriptive phrases such as "24/7" or "9/11"
  • In the signoff (credit) in photo captions

Note: AP doesn't explain this, but in the stylebook, the slash is also used in abbreviations such as "TCP/IP" and "NAA/IPTC."

In the 14th edition (1993) of The Chicago Manual of Style, the slash was listed under "solidus" and was summed up in one paragraph. Cute, right? It didn't make the first edition, in 1906, but that was a two-hundred-page baby compared to today's thousand-page sumo wrestler.

Chicago: We love our versatile little friend. Here are some of its uses.

  • With fractions
  • Between lines of quoted poetry
  • In Internet addresses (URLs) and pathnames
  • To signify "or" or "and/or"
  • With two-year spans, e.g., "1991/92" (instead of an en dash)
  • With dates (informal), e.g., "6/1/11"
  • In abbreviations, e.g., "$7/hour" (instead of "per") and "c/o" (instead of a period)

So that's the nitty-gritty of slashes and style. Let's talk about how to render a slash in certain contexts to improve readability, which is, after all, the heart of copyediting. (Or the lungs. Some vital organ.) In my experience, non-editors tend to either compulsively add spaces around all slashes or close them all up. When in doubt, ditch the spaces and you'll be right most of the time; however, Chicago has an option for handling open compounds (two or more words separated by a space, e.g., "copy editor") that offers more flexibility and clarity—totally worth memorizing. More on that coming up.

General Rule for Using Spaces With Slashes

In most cases, there are no spaces on either side of the slash. This is especially true for unique (read: inflexible) constructions such as directory paths and filenames, where our use of the slash is driven by requirement, not style.

Brief rant: There's a rogue slash style making the rounds, usually on resumes, for some reason: no space before the slash but one after. I'm not impressed by this. It's a red flag that points to poor decision-making more than anything else; even if executed consistently, it isn't a style which showcases a copy editor's skills. Rather, it may expose her or him as a "street" editor (as in "any schmoe off the street"). Not that I don't appreciate this heads-up.

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Exception: Quoted Poetry

AP: To show line breaks when quoting poetry in running text, use a slash between the lines, with a space before and after the slashes.

Chicago: Ditto. And when quoting more than one stanza in running text, insert two slashes [//] between the stanzas.

Note: Although Chicago discusses this explicitly, AP actually doesn't say anything about putting spaces around slashes for quoting poetry—only that slashes can be used to denote "the ends of a line in quoted poetry." Good enough for me!

Exception: Open Compounds

Chicago: If one or both of the terms separated by the slash consist of two or more words, a space before and after the slash may aid comprehension.

This option really appeals to me, because it helps to visually group an open compound, making it clear that words beyond the ones immediately surrounding the slash are part of the thoughts being weighed.

The 15th edition had prescribed a thin space before and after; now we've graduated to a full space, certainly a more realistic option for writers, editors, and typesetters. (Spacing slashes was not even addressed in the 14th edition.) I applaud this move towards simplicity and am looking forward to a thinner edition in CMOS' next incarnation. Well, I can dream, at least.


  • AP, 2017: "slash" and "Internet"; "Photo Captions" section
  • CMOS, 16th edition: slashes, 6.103-110; periods with abbreviations, 10.4; running in more than one stanza of poetry, 13.32

Posted in  Grammar
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