I maintain a personal vendetta against the backslash. In fact, it’s on my hit list whenever I edit content as a freelance writer and editor. I open the document and use the “Find + Replace” function to search for backslashes. Then, I remove every single one.
The backslash (\) is only meant to be used for computer coding. Yet, people drop it into sentences to divide lists, combine ideas and replace other, more appropriate punctuation.
Using the Forward-Slash
While the forward-slash (/) may be used in writing, it often works against the style and tone. It can be incredibly beneficial in shortening informal communication, such as:
- Fractions (e.g. 1/2)
- Abbreviations (e.g. w/o)
- Dates (e.g. 01/06/22)
However, the forward-slash signals a need to be brief and save space. That’s why you see it in forms, social media posts, and technical documents. If you are writing something with a thoughtful or creative tone, find and replace your slashes to elevate your writing.
What’s an easy place to start?
Most of the time, people use a forward-slash for and/or or he/she.
When to Use And versus Or
Sentences benefit from using either and or or — not both (and/or). Exceptions to this include forms, technical documents, or mediums where brevity overrules style. If you are writing any document where the tone and style matter, choose either and or or in your sentences.
There are three ways to use and in a sentence. First, you can use and to connect words of the same parts of speech. This includes clauses or sentences that are to be taken jointly. Second, you can use and to introduce a comment or interjection.
Most of the time, the word or links alternatives. Also, you can use it to introduce a synonym or explain a preceding phrase.
The key difference between these two words is what they are connecting. When people write and/or, it rarely adds clarity. In fact, it creates confusion. Make a list for the and “things” and a separate list for the or “things”. Most of the time, they should not be combined.
This may require restructuring your thoughts to create clarity between the two.
When to Use He, She, and They
Similarly, he/she is an odd grammatical hangover that confuses statements. For years, educators and editors instructed writers to use he whenever the gender was unknown. It was also the gender-neutral or gender-inclusive option. (Yes, this rule has some socio-political connotations from cultural roles.) In general, writers would use he whenever the subject meant the general public.
As our society became more inclusive, he/she started to work its way into written statements. This change was supposed to address the fact that the unknown subject could be a male or female. But, it also made writing clunky.
The Singular They
Now, they is an acceptable option when the gender of the subject is unknown (or frankly — irrelevant).
Linguistically, pronouns are words that refer to people by replacing proper nouns, like names. A pronoun can refer to either a person talking or a person who is being talked about. Common pronouns include they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, and he/him/his. Pronouns indicate the gender of a person; traditionally, he refers to males while she refers to females. The English language does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun, but in recent years they has gained considerable traction in this role. They has been officially recognized as correct by several key bodies such as the Associated Press. Similarly, the Chicago Manual of Style now notes that the singular “they” is common in informal communication (while acknowledging that it has yet to attain the same ubiquity in formal spaces).
Amusingly, they address the question “Isn’t this incorrect grammar?”
In short, no. Grammar shifts and changes over time; for instance, the clunky he or she that a singular they replaces is actually a fairly recent introduction into the language. Singular they has been used for a long time and is used in most casual situations; you probably do it yourself without realizing it. We are simply witnessing a reorientation of the rule, mostly with the intention of including more people in language.
When individuals whose gender is neither male nor female (e.g. nonbinary, agender, genderfluid, etc.) use the singular they to refer to themselves, they are using the language to express their identities. Adopting this language is one way writers can be inclusive of a range of people and identities.
As the gender binary has become less of a cultural mainstay, people have become familiar with the singular they. You probably don’t even notice it in everyday speech. Most people intuitively understand that they refers to an individual based on the context.
Personally, I suggest this is a personal (and somewhat political) choice on the part of the reader. I suggest using they for inclusivity. Otherwise, I recommend using he or she to avoid the slash. Stylistically, it’s less disruptive. Similar to and/or, this change improves long-form writing. Technical documents, forms, and mediums that require brevity may benefit from the slash.
When to use a Foward-slash
There are several instances where a forward-slash is appropriate and aids clarity.
- Separating Lines of Prose: In a poem, song, or play, you can separate the phrases with a slash and written together in one long line.
- Connecting and Conflicting ideas: Sometimes, writers connect two sides of a point with a slash to indicate their relationship (e.g. The anti-vaxx/pro-vaxx debate continued.)
- Branding: The rare exceptions are when a product or process actually requires a forward-slash as part of the style guide. Sometimes, you see it in brand names, product names, or other defined phrases.
In general, precise punctuation improves writing. Just like an ellipsis indicates a connecting (and often anxiety-inducing) pause, a backslash adds a feeling of curtness and rush. You can improve the tone of any long-form communication by removing unnecessary slashes.