The new word slash

From Anne Curzan’s column on the Lingua Franca blog yesterday:

Slash: Not Just a Punctuation Mark Anymore

Lots of us use the slash (/) in writing to capture two or more descriptions of the same thing, with a meaning something like “or,” “and,” or “and/or” — e.g., “my sister/best friend” or “request/require.” The slash typically separates two things that are the same part of speech or parallel grammatically; and we can say that slash out loud if needed: “my sister slash best friend.”

Now I wouldn’t write that phrase down that way, with the slash spelled out, but students tell me they now often do.

Curzan goes on to look at further extensions of the usage. First, a distinction in status between the two expressions separated by the slash, as in this example:

I spent all day in the UgLi [library] yesterday writing my French paper slash posting pictures of cats on my sister’s Facebook wall.

As this sentence makes clear, the slash is distinguishing between (a) the activity that the speaker or writer was intending to do or should have been doing, and (b) the activity that the speaker or writer actually did or anticipated they would do

Then a further extension:

for at least a good number of students, the conjunctive use of slash has extended to link a second related thought or clause to the first with a meaning that is often not quite “and” or “and/or” or “as well as.” It means something more like “following up.”

… I really love that hot dog place on Liberty Street. Slash can we go there tomorrow?

(Such examples can be punctuated with a comma, followed by slash rather than Slash.) But:

The innovative uses of slash don’t stop there either: some students are also using slash to introduce an afterthought that is also a topic shift, captured in this sample text from a student:

… JUST SAW ALEX! Slash I just chubbed on oatmeal raisin cookies at north quad and i miss you

This innovative conjunction (or conjunctive adverb, depending on how you want to interpret it) occurs, students tell me, even more commonly in speech than in writing. And in writing, it is often getting written out as slash, even in electronically mediated communication, where one might expect the quicker punctuation mark (/) rather than the five-letter word slash.

Very cool historical development, turning what started as a use of a punctuation mark into a new word (in both writing and speech).


2 Responses to “The new word slash

  1. Brian Ashurst Says:

    In the UK the / is “stroke”. It was used in the same way you describe in the 50s and 60s in England although I have never seen it spelled out.
    Btw, what is the received way of using the symbol in text–with or without a surrounding space? I have seen both used in the same document.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The standard way of using the symbol in text has no surrounding spaces, but except for very short combinations (like “and/or”), I use spaces on this blog, to avoid nasty visual consequences of right-justification in WordPress.

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