Wednesday, 19 December 2012

different strokes

We sometimes use the punctuation mark “/”, normally unsurrounded by spaces, in running text. Here’s an example from my blog posting of 10 October.

A correspondent writes to ask how to read this aloud. Good question.

The meaning of “/” here is to indicate alternatives. We could gloss it as ‘or’. Indeed, one way to say it aloud is to pronounce it, unstressed, as if it were written or, thus ˈlætɪn ɔː ˈɡriːk ɔː ˈhiːbruː.

But that would be like reading i.e. aloud as ðæt ˈɪz. What would be the equivalent, for “/”, of ˈaɪ ˈiː?

The usual thing, in contemporary BrE at any rate, seems to be to pronounce it as if it were written stroke, thus ˈlætɪn strəʊk ˈɡriːk strəʊk ˈhiːbruː. Another possibility is slash, or even slash mark, thus ˈlætɪn slæʃ ˈɡriːk slæʃ ˈhiːbruː.

Faced with, say, he/she, in BrE we often say he stroke she. I think Americans would prefer he slash she. (Some Brits, on the other hand, feel awkward with slash because of the informal spoken use of have a slash as a synonym of ‘urinate’.)

When it first became usual to name web addresses (URLs) on air, the BBC went through a period of pronouncing the “/” as forward stroke. But nowadays the forward part is usually dropped. (We know that URLs do not contain the backward stroke or backslash, “\”, so there is no danger of confusion of the two marks.)

In the days of my childhood, before the decimalization of our currency, you would pronounce 3/11, for example, as three and eleven, or formally and in full as three shillings and elevenpence (-pəns). (No one would have dreamt of saying three stroke eleven.) An alternative way of writing this sum then was 3s. 11d.

There are various other names for the punctuation mark we are discussing. Typographers sometimes call it a solidus ˈsɒlɪdəs. There are also diagonal and oblique. See a longer list in Wikipedia.


  1. The U.S. "slash" pronunciation for "/" is where the name "slash" or "slash fiction" came from (referring to fiction, often - usually? - based on another author's world and characters, involving male homosexual romance or sex).

    I believe that the pairing that gave rise to the expression was "Kirk/Spock" - read as "Kirk slash Spock" - from the "Star Trek" universe.

  2. I think I would read it as "Latin Greek Hebrew" with a very flat list intonation. Also "he she." "Slash" (as an american) only comes in when its informative, like in a web address. "h t t p, colon, double slash, etc."

    Re: Philip, "slash" and "femslash" are such common terms in my life that they're lexicalized rather differently from the reading of the punctuation. When faced with an actual pairing, like A/O or H/S I tend to read it as "A, O slash" not "A slash O," since slash is primarily a noun not a verb.

    Of course, these days most pairings are no longer described with the slash mark but with a blend word that individuates it from other pairings. K/S, sadly, ends up as "Spork" :)

    1. I might not just go with flat intonation, but even slow down my speech too. I'd certainly not say "slash" unless it were informative somehow.

      Also, I far prefer the abbreviation s/he to he/she, because you can say [ʃəˈhi] and capture the ambiguity perfectly.

    2. @Cara: I'd probably also read "Latin Greek Hebrew".

      As for the pronunciation of "Kirk/Spock", that was the etymology of "slash" as I learned it. Usage and pronunciation of that example may well have changed since then; it's been several decades, after all.

      (And I've come across the blends, too. "Snarry"? Really?)

    3. "Cara M.": you MUST use your true full name when commenting on this blog. Anonymous/pseudonymous comments risk being deleted.
      Also, I have no idea what you are talking about in your second and third paragraphs.

  3. John:
    It's most definitely "slash" in American English. Hadn't heard the colloquial term; logic (seldom so) would predicate "splash," an intensification of the onomatopeia.

    1. I've always known it as slash in internet usage. I recall back in 1995, jokes were circulating that a certain celebrity who had just been acquitted of murder (and who was later found liable for the deaths in a civil trial) had the website address "slash slash backslash escape".

      Also I can't say that any connection between web addresses and "having a slash" has ever bothered me, or indeed even really registered with me, even though I do very occasionally use that expression. If people were bothered about such things, then presumably when the web was invented at CERN, near Geneva, there would have been complaints about the near-homophony in French between http and acheter tes pets.

  4. My sat nav says 'oblique' - which I find very quaint when I heard it. I say 'stroke' (I'm 50), but many of the younger generation say 'slash'.

  5. Like other Yanks, I say "slash" and "backslash" informally, but in ISO standards-speak they are "solidus" and "reverse solidus" to me. I don't know if that makes me old-fashioned or avant-garde.

    We know that URLs do not contain the backward stroke or backslash

    I have actually heard people say "aitch tee tee pee colon backslash backslash", though admittedly not recently.

  6. If we're glossing this as "or", I would actually prefer to keep just the one at the end and say "Latin, Greek, or Hebrew". I call it "slash" in keeping with my mostly US word choices.

    In French I sometimes encounter written expressions like "Pour tous/toutes ceux/celles qui..." and wonder how they would be read out loud.

    Jongseong Park

  7. Nobody has mentioned the town which actually gets its name from the symbol: Stroke City, the second city of Northern Ireland.

    Historically Derry, it was renamed Londonderry by Britain and the Loyalists, while remaining Derry to the Nationalists. To avoid displeasing part of a readership it was written Derry/Londonderry; to avoid displeasing an audience it was pronounced Derry-Stroke-Londonderry.

  8. When using the stroke for alternatives, it wouldn't have occurred to me to pronounce it as a word. I'd say "Latin Greek Hebrew" with a short pause and a gesture with my hands or head to indicate a list.

    But when I have to pronounce it aloud, I use a vernacular common to American (and perhaps other?) programmer: whack. "h t t p colon whack whack" When there might be confusion about whether a slash or a backslash is used, I would say "forewhack".

    - Chris Lemmons (Google seems to want to publish only my id)

  9. As the pronunciation of "/" as an indicator of alternation, or as a part of the punctuation of (e.g.,) a business reference, I use "oblique", as drilled into me during my apprenticeship with the External Telecommunications Executive of the GPO; as a part of a URL, following the method, "slash slash", never "double slash".

    Philip Taylor

  10. Incidentally, in informal circumstances in the same organisation, "/" was also pronounced as "bar", as in "Ee bar oh" (E/O), the canonical abbreviation for "early off" (leave work early).

    Philip Taylor

  11. In Glasgow, and other Scottish cities, tenement buildings have a common street number for all the flats off the same 'close' or stairwell. I lived at 4 Leven Street, but so did the residents of the other 5 flats in the close. To ensure you get the correct post, you have to put your surname on the door. Although the flats are never numbered as such on the doors, the usage 1/1 for 'first floor leftmost door' or 1/2 for 'first floor, second door from the left' and so on. Modern entryphone systems at the main close door often show these descriptions.

    Informally this was said as 'one up left', etc., but when giving addresses, you would say 'one stroke one, four Leven Street'. 'Oblique' instead of 'stroke' was also used (this was in the late 80s - I don't know if 'slash' has appeared since, but it was unheard of then). I did read once in the paper of someone who said over the phone 'one oblique two, 69 High St' and received a letter addressed to 'One O'Bleak Two, 69 High St'.

    Ken Strong