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How the spoken “/” is improving English

Ari Appel

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English is constantly growing and changing. No matter what rules are established, they get broken; conventions of grammar change, new words are invented, and old ones take on new meanings. Take the word “deal,” for example. It can be used in many different ways: Ten bucks is not a very good deal, but Jon will go for it anyway––he has a great deal of money, having been dealt a good hand, so he doesn’t have to deal with money problems. Without looking at any etymological information, I am sure some of these usages are recent innovations. Like all words, “deal” doesn’t have a permanent definition, and what was once considered colloquial, if not plain incorrect, has become standard.

Language usually collects new words in a predictable way. When people need to express something there’s no word for, they create one. So, new words often develop in conjunction with technology and other material phenomena. New words also arise in many other ways, but nearly all innovation tends to follow a basic rule: In the short term, new word additions are lexical and not grammatical. I will explain what this means using the made-up sentence below:

“Throth lions, tigers, and bears are oh-my-worthy.”

You won’t find “throth” or “oh-my-worthy” in a dictionary, so they are my sample invented words. “Oh-my-worthy” seems more natural than “throth,” because it is a lexical word, and we invent words like it all the time. You can probably guess what “oh-my-worthy” means even though you’ve probably never seen it before. Lexical words are those which have meaning on their own, which includes almost all English words, like “apple,” “airplane,” “green,” “carefully,” etc. Grammatical words are those which do not have meaning on their own, but help to arrange other elements of a sentence, like “of,” “and,” “those,” “neither,” etc. New grammatical words are rarely adopted, which is why it’s harder to guess what “throth” means. (I meant it as an expansion of “both” to refer to three nouns instead of just two, the vowel pronounced like the one in “both.” If people start using that, I’ll be psyched.) Grammatical words are less open to innovation than lexical ones because they dictate the structure of a sentence, whereas lexical words fall into the structure that grammatical words establish.*

Developments in material phenomena like technology can all be captured by lexical word additions because the grammatical arrangements of English are sufficient as they are. We don’t need to come up with new grammatical words in order to address changes in the material world. However, we are in the midst of adding a new grammatical word to English. The word “slash,” which began as a texting shortcut, has become a real spoken word, and it is no-two-ways-about-it grammatical. “Slash”started being used in texting because it saves time to type a single “/ ” between phrases instead of a space, the two characters “o” and “r,” and then another space. But “slash” does not have the same meaning as “or;” it is somewhere between “or” and “and.” A Whittie might say, “I’m going to the library to write an essay, slash get hot chocolate and watch a bunch of Netflix.” It would mean something very different to say, “or get hot chocolate.” “Or” would imply that either essay-writing or Netflix-watching will take place, but not both, while “slash” tells the truth: there will likely be a mixture of the two. Then why not say “and?” “And” is too definite for the Whittie who doesn’t want to fully admit to time-wasting; it implies that they have made a conscious decision to both write and watch. “Slash” straddles the line between “and” and “or,” and it’s not as decisive as either of them. Here are some other situations where “slash” can be used:

Person 1: “Let’s go play frisbee!” Person 2: “Slash we can just stay here.”

“That professor is really easy, slash just doesn’t want to do any grading.”

“Only if the government slash huge corporations would concede to that …”

“Prentiss slash BonApp in general is the worst,” or, “Prentiss is the worst, slash BonApp in general.”

People sometimes use “slash” to expand upon a comment without forming an alternative with “or” or too strong a correlation with “and,” like in the second example. “Slash” is perfect for this situation because it correlates the original comment with the addition, but not too strongly, suggesting that the first part of the comment and the addition are alternatives, but that they might both be true. In other situations, like the frisbee example, “slash” is used to contradict someone else’s proposal without being too blunt. Or, as in the government example, “slash” is used when someone wants to refer to two things as if they were a single entity. “Slash” fills a void in our language that needed to be filled.

The “slash” void is apparent when we look at the different accepted usages of or. Or can mean different things depending upon its context. “Would you like your coffee with milk or sugar?” uses a different version of “or” than “Would you like the meat option or the vegetarian?” In the coffee example, “or” is closer to “slash” than in the second, even though “slash” can’t be used in that sentence (yet). “Milk or sugar” does not suggest two clear-cut options, but a proposal of possibilities. The person being asked could say “neither” or “both” or “a little of each” without contradicting the question. Meanwhile, “the meat or the vegetarian” implies a clear choice. If the person being asked responded, “both,” it would come off as recalcitrant, and the asker might say, “I said or.” As it is, English has a range of subtleties within the confines of “and” and “or,” so there’s no reason not to embrace the new possibilities that “slash “creates. In fact, there are foreign languages that already have words between “and” and “or.”

“Slash” adds complexity to English, but there are certainly some who will hold out against its adoption into common usage. It is slang, after all. But what’s wrong with slang? Slang is linguistic innovation, and it’s a testament to every generation’s individuality. So don’t feel like it’s unsmart to say “slash,” or even to write it in papers, for that matter.

One final note: As “slash” becomes more commonly used, I think it should be spelled out as it was in this article rather than denoted with “/ ,” because it is a word, not punctuation. But, then again, who am I to make the rules? Language will evolve as it will regardless.


*This example demonstrates how grammatical words affect sentence structure in ways that lexical words do not. The sentence “the foxes jumped and howled” retains its structure when all the lexical words are changed to made-up ones: “the hunklers yorled and thlobbed.” Hunklers, yorled, and thlobbed manage to act the part of legitimate words and preserve the sentence’s flow. This is in part because they end in -ers, -ed, and -ed respectively, hinting that hunklers is a plural noun and the other two are verbs in the past tense. The sentence seems like it would make sense if we just defined the made-up words. However, if the grammatical words are all replaced with made-up ones, the original sentence becomes “plo foxes jumped bork howled,” which is absolute nonsense. Plo and bork make the sentence fall apart. There is no equivalent to the -ers and -ed endings that I could have built into the made-up grammatical words, because there is no formula for creating new grammatical words in general. Replacing the and and with made-up words undoes the structure of the sentence.


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Whitman news since 1896
How the spoken “/” is improving English