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Thrash the Slash
There have always been words that people use to show they’re cool—words like cool, which gained wide acceptance in the 1940s,
unseating swell, keen, and spiffy.
And there have always been trendy phrases. In the 1970s, no one who was cool said in conclusion or in the last analysis. It was all about the bottom line—a phrase still in use, although it has been eclipsed by at the end of the day.
But now, perhaps for the first time, a punctuation mark is all the rage. It’s the forward slash, also known as the virgule, solidus, slant, separatrix, and whack. It is the only mark with more names than legitimate uses.
To most of us who care about the written word, the omnipresent slash is about as welcome as a fox/piranha in the henhouse/bathtub.
It appears we have computer technology to thank for this symbol’s unlikely emergence. The slash has become indispensable for URLs and any number of
online activities. But that hardly makes it compatible with proficient writing.
The slash has always been a handy tool for taking notes and writing rough outlines. Substituting w/o for without, y/o for years old, and b/c for because can save valuable time and space.
However, most slashes can—and should—be removed from a final draft. Writers who keep a construction like any man/woman in their
finished work instead of replacing it with any man or woman are telling their readers, “I don’t have enough time or respect for you to
write all this small stuff out.”
Our GrammarBook.com offices are teeming with an eclectic range of grammar primers, reference books, and style guides. Although many of these volumes have
entire sections on punctuation marks, only a handful even acknowledge the ignoble slash. The consensus is that a slash has two principal uses:
• To separate numbers in dates (9/11/2001) and fractions (½).
• To denote the original line breaks in quoted poetry (“Celery, raw / Develops the jaw”).
Here are some recent examples of slash-mania:
• They can indeed be responsible and successful statesmen/stateswomen. (Would it kill you to write “statesmen and stateswomen”?)
• Using the pass/fail option backfired on her. (How about “pass-fail”?)
• An amateur might find him/herself in trouble. (Amateurs might find themselves in trouble.)
• I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me. (I don’t open letters or other mail that isn’t
addressed to me.)
Try this experiment: say “I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me” out loud to someone. Doesn’t
exactly roll off the tongue, does it?
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
This might be the easiest pop quiz yet. Suggested fixes are below.
1. When/if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent/guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles/gallon.
4. The actor/director/producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.
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Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses, and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?
The good news: History tells us that we’ll be fine. Words have been changing meaning—sometimes radically—as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them. Over the next several weeks, we'll run a small sampling of words, courtesy of language historian Anne Curzan, you may not have realized didn’t always mean what they mean today.
1. Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish, simple.” Far from the compliment it is today!
2. Silly: Meanwhile, silly went in the opposite direction: in its earliest uses, it referred to things worthy or blessed; from there it came to refer to the weak and vulnerable, and more recently to those who are foolish.
3. Awful: Awful things used to be “worthy of awe” for a variety of reasons, which is how we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.”
Pop Quiz Answers
1. When and if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent or guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles per gallon.
4. The actor-director-producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.