Pesky Punctuation: The Forward Slash

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

My favourite – and possibly also my least favourite – thing about being an editor is falling down language rabbit holes on a near-daily basis. I recently fell down such a hole regarding the forward slash, and I return from my wanderings with the sad news that this innocuous little piece of punctuation – also known as the virugule, front slash, diagonal, slant, solidus, oblique stroke, and shill – may be getting in the way of the clarity of your writing. (Pedantry in the service of clarity, you see, barely counts as pedantry).

There’s plenty of uses for the good ol’ forward slash, from URLs to dates to mathematical expressions. The use I’m going to warn you away from is in text, to pair two terms, as in the sentence:

Most professional training programs these days have a coaching/mentoring component.

That’s fine, right? Well . . . no. I was always averse to such constructions because it just doesn’t look very nice, but it turns out there’s more wrong with this use of the slash than the aesthetics. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the slash can mean either ‘or’ or ‘and/or’ – and the Chicago Manual of Style declares the slash can occasionally denote ‘and’.

Does that really matter, though?

Well, yes . . . and no. Like many issues of style, the answer is going to depend on your own preference and the purpose of your writing. If you are writing government policy on, say, national training programs, it matters a great deal whether you mean:

The new program will include a coaching or mentoring component.


The new program will include a coaching and/or mentoring component.

In the first case, each program provider will need to hire either a coach or a mentor, and schedule time for either coaching or mentoring sessions. In the second case, there’s a chance providers might need or wish to employ both a coach and a mentor. This matters for budgets, timetabling, quality assurance, you name it.

And when you start to really obsess think about it, it gets even muddier: when you write coaching/mentoring, are you trying to say these two words could be used interchangeably to refer to a particular type of training, or do you mean these are two different but related terms, and either or both will be included?

Uhhh . . .

Don’t just take my word for it. The APA Publication Manual advises writers not ‘to use a slash when a phrase would be clearer,’ and Snooks & Co.’s (2002) Style manual warns writers to avoid using the slash to ‘show an association between words that retain their separate identities’ (p. 109). So, writing ‘coaching/mentoring’ to mean two different types of training that may both be used in the program is a no-no. And when it comes to using the slash to indicate alternatives rather than associations, the examples Snooks & Co. provide are very clear-cut and unlikely to confuse the reader:


So, when that tempting slash sneaks in to your writing – especially academic or technical writing, in which clarity is everything – it’s best to pause and think it through: only use a forward slash if you are (a) offering two terms as alternatives and (b) it is clear to the reader that you are doing so.

‘And/or’ is okay though, right?

‘Fraid not. In fact, ‘and/or’ is even less okay than the slash on its own. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) declares bluntly,

Avoid this Janus-faced term. (p. 311).

It goes on to point out that in many cases either ‘and’ or ‘or’ can be used with no loss of meaning, and where you really must cover all bases, it’s better to

try . . . or . . . , or both {take a sleeping pill or a warm drink, or both}. But think of other possibilities [such as] 'take a sleeping pill, perhaps with a warm drink}.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (4th ed.), declares and/or to be

A device, or shortcut, that damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity. (p. 40)

Be kind to your sentences and give and/or a wide berth.

* Tears hair in frustration *

Alright, let’s be real: this is one of the least important style issues you can run across, and it’s a little absurd to spill some 700 words on it – so don’t let it stress you out when it comes to your own writing. But it is a wonderful example of how the little things we type without thinking can actually throw up barriers between our readers and our meaning. Typing ‘coaching/mentoring’ because I haven’t really thought about what I mean by either or how they might be employed in a training program is easy – I don’t even really notice I’m taking a shortcut – but being alive to my use of punctuation makes me stop and think. It forces me to write exactly what I mean, and that makes it easier for my audience to understand me.

So, perhaps your government paper should read

For the purposes of this research, coaching and mentoring are considered to be interchangeable, and in this paper ‘coaching’ is used to refer to both.

or maybe

Given the differences between coaching and mentoring discussed above, but recognising that they are directed to the same goal and develop broadly similar skills in the trainee, providers are given the option to incorporate either coaching or mentoring in their training programs.

More words, but clearer prose – a wise trade-off, much of the time.

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