Pro Tip Tuesday #16: Use slashes responsibly

When I’m doing a line edit, one thing I pay attention to is how often the author uses pairs or sets of terms connected by slashes, which academic writers seem to love doing. One reason for avoiding this whenever possible is just that it can momentarily trip up the reader—how exactly do you pronounce “power/legitimacy” or “identity/politics/culture”? But in Revise, Pamela Haag describes how taking out slashes (virgules) can strengthen your writing on more than just the mechanical level:

The virgule is fine in your early draft phases, as a placeholder tool, but with successive drafts the tough word choice has to get made, and better that you make it than your editor or—worse—your reader. For example, in the case of one virgule-abusing manuscript, the author had foundation/scaffolding, and I urged her to choose one, because the slight differences between these two terms would help sharpen her thesis. Was the belief system she was describing an enduring base for what would come later (a foundation), or was it a temporary support (a scaffold)? Both terms imply a support of some kind but, actually, of different kinds. Sketchy writing had been enabling sketchy thought; conversely, the resolution of the sketchy writing enabled by that simple virgule led to a more precise thought.

Pamela Haag, Revise: The Scholar-Writer’s Essential Guide to Tweaking, Editing, and Perfecting Your Manuscript (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 226.

Of course, there are valid or unavoidable uses of the slash (see CMOS 6.105–6.113), which brings me to another point: for clarity, when at least one of the terms around a slash has more than one word (and isn’t hyphenated), put a space on either side of the slash: tenor/bass, soprano/mezzo-soprano, but flute / alto sax, snare drum / bass drum. Without those spaces, it can look like only the words directly on either side of the slash are being juxtaposed.