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The virgule, or a slash, is a typographic symbol. The most common American English usage is shown within the expression "and/or". Other common uses suggest an attribute or choice, such as "male/female".

Introduction to the slash (/) or virgule (/)

The diagonal slash (/) and the virgule (/) are one and the same typographic symbol, and both represent the English expression “and/or.” The virgule is generally known as a slash in American English, or a stroke or solidus. In computer-oriented discussions or languages, a virgule may be called a forward slash in order to distinguish it from the backslash (\). The symbol has many other names since it has been in use for many centuries.  

A virgule often separates lines of poetry or song lyrics quoted in a otherwise run-on sentence in a text. The word “virgule” is derived from the Latin virgule, which is a diminutive of the word virga, meaning “rod” or “branch.” Its first known use was in ancient Rome, where the symbol represented a comma, while two virgules represented a dash.

How to use the slash (/) or virgule (/)

The most common use of the virgule or slash is as a substitute for the word “or” when it indicates an often mutually-exclusive choice.

For example: Male/female, Yes/No, He/She/It.

The virgule is also used to avoid taking a position in naming controversies, and allowing the juxtaposition of both names or titles without stating a preferences. 

For example: Latino/Latin American/Hispanic on the United States census report.

The virgule or slash can also replace a hyphen or en dash in order to make a strong joint between certain words, phrases, or people, but it does not carry the same meaning as the comma (,). It should not be confused with other punctuation marks.

For example: The Reagan/Bush voters still prefer the Republican political party.

An additional use of the virgule (it is not termed a slash in this case) is to indicate a line break in quotations of poems, plays, headlines, or song lyrics. While semicolons, commas, and clauses are used within sentences, the slash (/) is used for other grammatical purposes. It can even be used in a general prose quotation to indicate the start of a new paragraph, although this use is not typical.

The lines “With his sax: high/and lonely as a kestrel/twirls on thermals, sorting/files of sound with a singular/finger, now alighting”, shows how the slash (/) is used within American prose.

Examples from other languages and texting

There are generally no spaces after or before a slash, unless the slash represents the start of a new line when quoting verse, or a new paragraph when quoting prose specifically. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, there may be spaces placed when the separated items form a compound that already includes a space, such as in the following example:

“The Vietnam / Thailand tour is the most popular.”

In Canada, the virgule or slash is often referred to as an “oblique.” Another common modern-day use of the forward slash is in forming emoji, the emotional additions many people use when texting or writing email messages to add some flare and intention. For instance, multiple forward slashes used in succession indicate shyness or embarrassment by Japanese Internet users, which is similar to manga drawing indicating embarrassment. These forward slashes are usually placed at the end of a statement.

For example: “My mother always insists on walking me home from school, even though I am twelve years old, now. /////”

An addition use of the slash or virgule is in abbreviations, where it is used to separate letters in a two-letter initialism that is common to a particular language (primarily in British English). Some examples are “R/C” for “radio control” or “b/w” for “between.” More common abbreviations include “b/w” for “black and white”; “w/e” for “whatever” “weekend,” or “week ending”; and “r/w” for “read/write.” This usage is particularly common where shorter notation makes documentation easier, as in emails, text messages, and military and government writing.

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