The forward slash (/) appears in everything from number fractions and calendar dates to poetry and URLs.* Despite this multifunctional usage, the forward slash is frequently mishandled when used as a shortcut for joining words and creating and–or situations. Here are three guidelines on how to use forward slashes in general writing that will help you avoid your own slash missteps.
1. Reserve forward slashes for simultaneous word combinations.
Can both of the things you need to combine exist simultaneously? If so, the forward slash is appropriate. If those things can’t exist simultaneously (or you don’t mean for them to exist simultaneously in your text), the forward slash requires conjunctions.
Good: The visiting painter/philosopher lectured the class for three hours.
Someone can be a painter and a philosopher simultaneously.
Problematic: The politician forgot to pack her pants/skirts for her campaign tour.
With the exception of a questionable piece of fashion called the skort, the politician’s forgotten clothing can only be pants or skirts or a mix of pants and skirts—but the individual items can’t simultaneously be both pants and skirts. In this case, the conjunction or would be a better solution: The politician forgot to pack pants or skirts for her campaign tour.
2. Use conjunctions for and–or situations.
When using the forward slash to describe an and–or situation, include the conjunctions and and or so that your readers don’t mistakenly assume that the two things must exist simultaneously, as described above.
Good: Visitors will be asked to show a passport and/or driver’s license before entering the restricted area.
This and/or indicates that some visitors will have to show both forms of identification while others will only have to show one form.
Problematic: Hospital policy requires the surgeon/anesthesiologist to brief the patient before surgery.
An individual medical professional generally doesn’t function as both a surgeon and an anesthesiologist simultaneously. So, include the conjunctions and and or to show that one or both of these medical professionals should visit the patient before surgery: Hospital policy requires the surgeon and/or anesthesiologist to brief the patient before surgery.
3. Treat forward slashes as a last resort.
Although the “good” examples above demonstrate valid, grammatically correct ways to use the forward slash, there’s no denying the fact that it is the black sheep of the punctuation family. It is vilified as an awkward or unnecessary shortcut. And while that may be true in many cases, there are also many situations, particularly in business, technical, and research writing, when the slash creates clarity and concision. So, always look for an alternative first, but if no workable solution presents itself—slash away!
Further Reading: How to Use Suspended Hyphens
*The forward slash has many other names including slant, solidus, and virgule.