Punctuation Tips: The Backslash and Forward Slash
  • 3-minute read
  • 29th September 2019

Punctuation Tips: The Backslash and Forward Slash

Today, we’re looking at some oft-overlooked punctuation marks: the backslash and the forward slash. But wait! Did you know that only one of these is technically a punctuation mark? If not, you might find this guide useful!

Here, we look at what backslashes and forward slashes represent and how they should be used if you want to avoid errors when using them in your writing.

The Backslash

The slash that isn’t technically a “punctuation” mark we mentioned is the backslash ( \ ). It is a typographic mark (i.e., something you can type). But it doesn’t have a function in punctuation, and you will not find it in most writing.

The true home of the backslash is computing, where it is used in various programming languages. You’ll also see it if you look up a file directory in Windows (although not on Apple computers, which use a different system).

However, you shouldn’t typically need to use a backslash in your writing.

The Forward Slash

While the backslash is a specialist, the forward slash is a Jack-of-all-trades. Its most common use is to mean “or” when presenting two alternatives:

Each speaker will give a presentation on a topic of his/her choice.

The slash here shows that either word could apply. However, you should avoid doing this too often in formal writing, where “or” is a better choice.

Other common uses of the forward slash include:

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  • Date formats (e.g., 03/27/2019 March 27, 2019)
  • Fractions or indicating division (e.g., 5/8 = five eighths)
  • Indicating “per” in a measurement (e.g., 50 lbs/day = fifty pounds per day)
  • Separating lines of poetry on a single line (e.g., I wandered lonely as a cloud/That floats on high o’er vales and hills)
  • Certain abbreviations (e.g., c/o = care ofn/a = not applicable)
  • URLs for websites (e.g., https://proofed.com/writing-tips/)

You may also see a forward slash used to indicate a relationship. For instance:

Soviet/US relations were tense throughout the 1960s.

This use of a slash is okay in less formal writing. In formal writing, however, you should use an en dash to indicate connections instead:

SovietUS relations were tense throughout the 1960s.

There are some cases when a slash is the correct symbol use in formal writing (e.g., when one of the connected things is a hyphenated compound). Usually, though, an en dash is the standard punctuation for indicating a relationship like this.

Summary: The Backslash and Forward Slash

Although these symbols look similar, forward slashes and backslashes have different uses. Make sure to remember the following:

  • The backslash (\) is mostly used in computing and isn’t a punctuation mark.
  • The forward slash (/) can be used in place of “or” in less formal writing. It’s also used to write dates, fractions, abbreviations, and URLs.

Since the backslash is not a punctuation mark, you will rarely need it in writing. Thus, usually, the correct slash will be the forward slash. But if you’d like to be extra sure your writing is error free, we’re always here to help.

Comments (2)
Hermann
8th December 2020 at 14:37
Very interesting, but let me split some hairs: 1. You should not call it a "Windows-specific" symbol, as the backslash is used everywhere on all computer systems. You find it in Strings ("series of characters"), e.g. to insert line breaks ("\n"), tabs ("\t"), or other special characters; to insert octal notations of characters (e.g. "\0101" for letter "A"); or to "escape" special characters, i.e. turning characters with a special meaning into their literal meaning, e.g. "\\n" means "\n" (and not a newline). The fact that Windows uses an exotic way to write filesystem paths does not make the backslash a Windows-specific character. 2. Slashes are parts of URLs. When saying "the slash is used to write ... URLs" it sounds like you could write a URL any other way, but in fact they contain forward slashes by definition. But thank you for explaining the whole thing; writing English as a foreign language I learned something today, indeed. Hermann the German
    Proofed
    8th December 2020 at 15:40
    Hi, Hermann. Thanks for your comment. Our post was focused on where most people are likely to see these marks in day-to-day life, hence the emphasis on Windows file systems (this is a post about punctuation rather than programming, after all, so we're inevitably going to have to gloss over a few things). But I've amended the passage on the use of backslashes to clarify thay they're used in programming. On the "used to write" point, moreover, we were simply referring to the character being something you will use when writing the things listed, not implying that the slashes are optional in a URL (although it's worth noting that, in practical terms, you can write a URL without slashes if it is for a homepage). However, to avoid any possibility of ambiguity, we've edited the wording here accordingly as well.

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