the forward-slash/hyphen conundrum resolved

Es­ti­mated reading time is 8 min­utes.

I PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE about the use of dashes ti­tled “On Those Pesky Dashes As Punc­tu­a­tion Marks” on Neal Umphred Dot Com. There I 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.

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 . . .



Wouldn’t It Be Nice b/w God Only Knows. Sup­pos­edly, Brian Wilson had wanted God Only Knows is­sued as a single weeks in ad­vance of the PET SOUNDS album re­lease in May 1966. Capitol sup­pos­edly balked for two rea­sons: they did not be­lieve that a rock & roll single with “God ” in the title was a good idea in the ultra-conservative por­tions of the country, and frankly, they didn’t think the music on the album was par­tic­u­larly “com­mer­cial sounding.” Two months after the fact, Capitol did re­lease a single, but it was Wouldn’t It Be Nice backed with God Only Knows. The non-commercial single reached the Top 10 on both Bill­board and Cash Box. And 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.

Common 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?”



God Only Knows c/w Wouldn’t It Be Nice. In the rest of the world, Chris­tian fun­da­men­talism wasn’t an issue and God Only Knows as the single cou­pled with Wouldn’t It Be Nice as the flip-side. In Eng­land, God Only Knows reached #2 on sev­eral of the British week­lies, jus­ti­fying the afore­men­tioned con­jec­ture. In fact, fur­ther con­jec­ture might in­clude that had Capitol is­sued both of these sides as A-sides of dif­ferent singles—one prior to t e album’s re­lease and once con­cur­rent with it—they might have had three Top 10 sin­gles on the album and a po­ten­tial million-seller with PET SOUNDS. Of curse, it’s all con­jec­ture, a moot point now.

So, 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 still 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.

Is it then ‘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-rockcountry-rock, etc. 5



When James Taylor’s Fire And Rain broke out onto the na­tional scene, 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, and I thought, but Chuck Berry is a singer-songwriter. Buddy Holly is a singer-songwriter. Bob Dylan is a singer-songwriter. Donovan is a singer-songwriter. The list is not end­less but you get the point. The phase died down and now we don’t read as much about is a 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 this page is an out­take from the ses­sions that pro­duced the front cover art for the hugely suc­cessful SWEET BABY JAMES album of 1970. I was never a fan, thinking Taylor a wimp, a wuss, a sweet baby james. I didn’t get him until 1979 when his re­laxed reading of the Holland-Dozier-Holland’s How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You caught my at­ten­tion. I iden­ti­fied with the easy-going sex­i­ness of Taylor’s whole ap­proach to the song (Of course, I was so much older then and it made more sense than it would have eight years ear­lier.) Since then, I have learned to ap­pre­ciate his whole career. 



1   My use of the term “proper use” 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 anyone 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 . . .


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Great ar­ticle! I first thought Taylor was a wimp, too. I se­ri­ously ap­pre­ciate your site. Thanks, Mike.

so should i be writing “thumpers, boners, and DCH” or “thumpers-boners-DCH” or “thumpers/boners/DCH”? i’m sorry neal, my writing isn’t nearly as fluent/
cor­rect as yours.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x