MY PREVIOUS ARTICLE ON DASHES was titled “On Those Pesky Dashes As Punctuation Marks” and addressed the em-dash (—), the en-dash (–), and the hyphen (-). It should have included some suggestions on the proper use of the forward leaning slash (/). After all, graphically the forward-slash, or virgule, is just an upright, slanted dash!
So, rather than amend the original article with new text, I am presenting the hyphen/forward-slash conundrum here as a separate essay. 1
Many writers’ texts read as though they are confused as to when and where to use the forward-slash. And please note that I am hyphenating the two words from here on for the primary reason that hyphens are used: to connect two words into one grammatical unit.
Technically, the forward-slash is a virgule, which is French from the Latin meaning “little twig.”
That is, a hyphen between two words implies that the individual meanings of the words remain separate and intact, but that they are connected, usually to make a unit with a slightly different meaning.
If that is the main use for hyphenation in text, then why do we also see two words connected with a forward-slash—words that would seem to require the mini-dash? 2
Because the forward-slash gives a different meaning to the connection it makes between two words. The slash implies an interchangeable relationship between the words—not that they are connected, but that they are essentially synonymous!
That is not the only use for the virgule.
Supposedly, Brian Wilson wanted God Only Knows issued as a single 6-8 weeks in advance of the PET SOUNDS album. Capitol balked as they did not believe that a rock & roll single with “God ” in the title was a good idea and they didn’t think the music on the album was particularly “commercial sounding.” Two months after the album was released, Capitol issued God Only Knows but as the B-side to Wouldn’t It Be Nice. The A-side reached the Top 10 while the one with “God” in its title made the Top 40 independently, leading to conjecture that it could have been another top-tenner as an A-side.
Uses for a forward-slash
Most of the time, the forward-slash is invisible to us, as it is used in combinations that are so ubiquitous that we pay little attention to them. Here are some common uses for the virgule:
• Use a forward-slash with a space on either side ( / ) to indicate a line-break when quoting poetry or lyrics in sentence form. Example: “Far between sundown’s finish and midnight’s broken toll, / we ducked inside the doorway thunder crashing. / As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds, / seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing.” 3
• Use a forward-slash as shorthand for per. Example: “In my first job out of high school, Leo Matus paid me $2.50/hr.”
• Use a forward-slash as shorthand for or. Example: “Most pop and rock music lyrics are in sentence form and have he/she/it as their subject.”
• Use a forward-slash in some abbreviations. Example: “In July 1966, Capitol capitulated and pulled a single from the PET SOUNDS album, releasing Wouldn’t It Be Nice b/w God Only Knows.” 4
• Use a forward-slash for mathematical fractions to separate the numerator from the denominator. Example: “In 1948, Columbia issued the first modern long-playing albums with a speed of 33 ⅓ rpm.”
It is only when the forward-slash is used outside of these instances that it catches our attention, gives us pause to think, “Wait—shouldn’t that be a hyphen?”
In the rest of the world, Christian fundamentalism wasn’t an issue and God Only Knows was issued as a single. In the UK, it reached #2, justifying the conjecture in the caption to the first image above.
Is it pop/rock or pop-rock?
When I am writing about rock & roll music of the ’60s and I want readers to understand that many rock musicians then referred to their music as “pop music,” should I call it pop/rock or pop-rock? This one puzzled me for some time, because it gets into word meaning, not just usage:
• If pop was meant as a contraction of popular, I can argue that as rock music was THE popular music of the ’60s, then pop and rock are essentially synonymous and pop/rock could be used.
• If pop was used to indicate the then-current worldwide fascination with Andy Warhol’s brand of Pop Art, and rock musicians were associating their creations with that world, then pop-rock would be correct.
Of course, both are correct. As I try to avoid using (and confusing with) virgules, I write pop-rock.
When the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man was released in March 1965, Bob Dylan was considered nothing but a folk-singer-songwriter. So, despite the fact that the lyrics of MTM had little to do with any known folk tradition, and in fact sounded like they may have a little trippy instead, the term ‘folk-rock’ caught on and a new sub-genre of pop-rock music was created.
Does that apply to folk rock and raga rock?
In 1965, the Byrds’ recording of Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man was an international hit. It caused some clever writer to coin the term “folk rock” to describe the hybridization of Dylan’s (supposedly) folkie-based lyrics with the Byrds’ rock-based arrangement.
So, readers of ancient pre-MTV scrolls and manuscripts will find the term written as folk rock, folk/rock, and folk-rock. Of course, we know now that as folk and rock are not interchangeable, a hyphen is required to connect the two words and give us a new grammatical unit describing a new musical sub-genre! Ditto for raga-rock, country-rock, etc. 5
When James Taylor’s Fire And Rain broke, every writer seemed suddenly enamored of the term ‘singer-songwriter.’ (Or is it singer/songwriter?) Throughout the early ’70s, the singer-songwriter thing was everywhere. The phase died down and now we don’t read as much about singer-songwriters, despite their being everywhere.6
Singer-songwriter or singer/songwriter?
While there have always been songwriters who sang their own songs, the term ‘singer songwriter’ came to the fore with the meteoric rise of James Taylor in 1970. Suddenly, the rarely heard term was everywhere, and singer-songwriters were the rage for several years!
Or should it be, “Suddenly, the rarely heard term was everywhere, and singer/songwriters were the rage for several years”?
Applying the aforementioned rules, a singer-songwriter is a singer who writes his/her own songs.
Someone who is referred to as a singer/songwriter is either a singer or a songwriter.
An example of the former is, “Singer-songwriter James Taylor had a worldwide hit with his recording of his song Fire And Rain, which addressed his depression and drug use.”
An example of the latter is, “Former Beach Boy Brian Wilson could qualify for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as singer/songwriter/producer—or as all of them!”
And yes, I realize the Brian Wilson example displays awkward usage: while it is supposed to imply or, it can just as easily mean and.
Which is why I avoid using the virgule/forward-slash in the text in anything that I write except for the common uses listed above. 7
Finally, never ever use a back-slash (\) in place of a forward-slash! In fact, unless you are into the technology of computing or math, you might just want to forget that the back-slash even exists.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of the page is a gorgeous close-up of a twig that I found at The Tree Geek website: “This is a pretty good representation of a Green Ash twig. You can see that the twig has a terminal bud that is actually composed of three buds.
Also notice that the axillary buds are growing in an ‘opposite’ habit, meaning that the leaves of an Ash tree will grow on the opposite side of the branch from each other, rather than an ‘alternate’ pattern. Another important aspect of the buds is the scale pattern. Ours appears to be rough—which is in line with the genus Fraxinus.”
1 My use of the term “proper use” in this article (The Hyphen / Forward-Slash Conundrum Resolved”) refers to “proper” as I see it, as I use these things in my writing. It is merely my suggestion, keeping in mind that I ain’t no credentialed expert!
2 I admit that this one had me confused and I was glad to do some research to clarify the usage. My Internet resources were The Writing Guide, The Punctuation Guide, Online Etymology Dictionary, and Wikipedia.
3 That’s my punctuation for Dylan’s Chimes Of Freedom. You may hear/read it another way.
4 In the record business, ‘b/w’ means backed with, and refers to the A- and B-sides of a 78 or 45 rpm single. A similar abbreviation is ‘c/w,’ which means coupled with.
5 Thank Grommett we never had any one try to foist folkrock or ragarock off on us!
6 By using music for all of my examples, I get double duty out of this article: it fits onto Neal Umphred Dot Com because it covers punctuation, and it fits into Rather Rare Records because there’s so much record-related reading here.
7 When one uses the forward-slash, is one then virgulating? Did I just coin a new word? Nope: virgulate exists as an adjective. It is properly pronounced vər-gyə-lə̇t (vur-gyuh-let) and means “having a shape resembling a rod.”
But I can coin it as a verb: we will pronounce it vur-gyoo-late and it means “to annoy readers with excessive use of forward-slashes in text.”
Hence, one who virgulates repeatedly is a virgulator!
I know—enough already with the bad grammar jokes …