A while ago, a colleague and I were discussing an invitation she’d received to write an article for the Popular Culture and Philosophy book series, whose titles tend to crowd the likes of Gramsci off the shelves of your local book monopoly’s “Cultural Studies” shelf. We discussed their submission guidelines, some of which left me wondering who exactly the market for these books is. The guidelines show a barely veiled hostility to academicalism throughout: they advise a contributor to “explain philosophical ideas” but avoid “jargon” — unless it’s “‘in-group’ phrases” that will be “familiar to fans of the [pop culture] topic”; they advise you not to spend pages discussing philosophy, but to mention the topic “regularly and frequently.” Okay. So these books are for fans, not philosophers.
Anyway. One imperative in the guidelines for Good Writing and Presentation caught my attention, under a header called “Avoid the monstrously ugly!”:
Avoid all use of slashes to indicate alternatives (“in a modern/progressive vein”; “theocratic/patriarchal”); this habit betrays slovenly thinking as well as a tin ear for verbal expression. (If a polarity is intended, employ a hyphen: “left brain-right brain,” “freewill-determinism.”)
And this is where the guidelines started to make sense. I share these editors’ loathing of the punctuational slash — / — in academic writing, specifically in the literary criticism and Humanities research that tend to dominate my reading, and that definitely tend to overuse the slash. I read the slash as a symptom of the stylistic malaise of scholarly writing, which has prompted not only the admonitions of editors but also the lamentations of scholars. In literary criticism, this malaise was the subject of a recent Readers’ Forum of English Studies in Canada (ESC), edited by Stephen Slemon, called “Why do I have to write like that?” Dr. Slemon calls literary criticism a “baleful genre,” but holds out hope that professional reflection on it signals “a genuine capacity for [said profession’s] self-rescue and that the diacritic of that capacity might be another way of writing” (2).
My modest contribution to building this capacity here is to make a case for scholarly writing, especially literary criticism, to trash the pernicious slash. I realize it’s not my place to dictate on points of style, but I can at least explain why I never use it.1 The slash is to me a bit like what Comic Sans is to designers: amateurish, inappropriate, and inexplicably overused.
First, in which cases is using the slash authorized?
- To mark the ends of quoted poetic lines
- In citing URLs
- In writing dates, e.g. “9/11”
(An increasingly common construction in everyday writing, “and/or” would be a provisional, supplementary entry on this list. There are clearer constructions to indicate alternates, and this “verbal monstrosity” has its own controversy, but I’m hunting bigger punctuation game here.) So having summarized approved slash uses, let’s look at its misuses.
The slash disguises imprecision and indecision as ambiguity and indeterminacy. Now don’t get me wrong: as a writer of literary criticism, I depend and thrive on textual ambiguity and indeterminacy. But in scholarly writing, using slash punctuation to signal a point of ambiguity or disjunction tends rather to suggest that a statement needs both further critical reflection and closer editing. Take this example:
a prominent endeavour among colonised writers/artists has been to rework the European ‘classics’ in order to invest them with more local relevance and to divest them of their assumed authority/authenticity. (Gilbert and Tomkins 16)
Here the slash simply seems to replace “and,” which would read more smoothly and retain the sense of pairs that are intimately articulated. In another passage, though (in this text which uses the slash rather compulsively in this way), the slash interferes with clarity of meaning: “Since its history/practice is extremely complex, it is impossible to do justice to Indian drama in a broadly comparative study” (7). Here, history and practice are two very different terms, presumptuously identified and singularized as a noun that still clashes grammatically with the singular verb “is” which follows. Here, then, is a case for reflecting further on which term better fits the statement, or whether “and” could more clearly conjoin both terms.
Decide! I am provoked to think, on reading sentences like these. You’re writing an argument, not a Choose Your own Adventure.
The slash reduces theoretical insight to crude shorthand. One of the contributors to Slemon’s ESC forum makes a case for “adjusting what we understand as good critical writing,” arguing that it should not need “to conform to academic formulas” (12). On this I quite agree: what’s blogging, after all, if not critical writing that doesn’t conform to academic formulas? However, among the standards outlined and reflected on in this article, that concerning spelling and punctuation makes a symptomatic, parenthetical exemption: “Nothing is misspelled (unless self-consciously so, in which case the misspelled word is coded as linguistic intervention through the assiduous placement of dashes, hyphens, quotation marks, and/or parentheses)” (10). The exemption usefully outlines a standard theoretical rationale for the kind of creative punctuation epitomized by the slash: it represents a “linguistic intervention.” It also makes such an intervention by using “and/or.” But too often this kind of linguistic intervention occurs cursorily, without the extensive elaboration that would articulate and account for the specific intervention purported to be made. (Commitment to such articulation is arguably a significant part of what makes Derrida’s writings so lengthy; he doesn’t make linguistic interventions lightly, or without explicating in detail their implications.)
And we read an instance of the more naturalized than problematized “linguistic intervention” later in this same ESC article, amidst reflections on the author’s grading process and its politics, as a process “designed to discipline/convert students to the conventions of good academic critical writing” (11).
In the context of an argument for rethinking the criteria of good writing, the slash here may well represent an ironic linguistic intervention against “writing that is ideologically coded as upper middle class and white” (11) — a point well taken, in its own right. But the further irony is how this intervention also interferes with basic grammatical clarity. In the context of the sentence, both “discipline” and “convert” are transitive verbs, but “discipline” doesn’t use the same transitive construction: one may discipline students in the conventions, but not to them. Alternately, it would be grammatically correct to discipline students to do something — that is, to follow the slashed verb with another verb. However, discipline can also be read intransitively, which would grammatically end the sentence much sooner, right after discipline. In short, the grammatical and semiotic interference posed by the slash as used in this sentence outweigh its coded theoretical insight (which presumably alludes to the Foucauldian theory of discipline and its academic exploitation).
It’s symptomatic that this article is written by the ESC forum’s most junior contributor, a doctoral candidate. I don’t say this to belittle or unfairly criticize the contributor at all — I quite agree with the article’s argument — but its conspicuous slash use contrasts to the absence of the slash (with one exception ) among the forum’s seven other contributions, all by more senior scholars. The slash in this article, then, is a symptom of a particular moment in literary critical pedagogy, a moment shaped and informed by the linguistic, theoretical, and cultural turns of the Humanities in the last decades of the twentieth century.
I realize that reading the slash as a product of that moment, and that moment as a product of those paradigm-shifting turns, could be misconstrued as an attack on theory; so let me be clear that nothing could be further from my intent. (I intensively study, extensively use, and tentatively develop theory in my own writing.) As I said at the outset, my concern here is strictly stylistic, and just as style has its politics, so does resistance to stylistic excess, in the name not of simplicity or “common sense,” but of clarity and confidence of voice in critical composition, as a surer means to persuade a larger readership of the soundness of one’s argument — and, of course, of its validity too. As another of Slemon’s contributors affirms, “we must teach the tools of the well-wrought sentence even as we teach the tools for dismantling it […] as a daring return to the idea that the best prose and the best writers flow across genres” (27). Or to put it another way, by paraphrasing Flaubert: be regular and orderly in your punctuation, that you may be wild and original in your ideas.
To my reading eye (and I know I’m not alone on this), the slash does to the flow of reading a scholarly text what a skipping needle does to the flow of listening to a record. What is presumably intended as semiotic richness reads like punctuational noise. In my research writing and in how I teach writing, I will continue to work towards that happy day when the academical slash may be regarded as a quaint oddity, the way we now regard the presumptuous use of the masculine pronoun to speak on anyone’s behalf.
I’m not so set in my ways that I wouldn’t like to hear the counter-argument, and there may well be more than one theoretically informed and incisive problematization of the critical deployed slash. But I haven’t yet seen such a problematization, only its further, naturalizing proliferation. As in the latest ESC arrived in the mail. This issue’s Readers’ Forum? “Pro/Con/fessionals: (Re)defining Ourselves and the Profession.” And the needle slips clean off the record.
1. I’ve been publishing research since 2002, and the only slashes in any of it (excepting the above authorized uses) appear in two phrases — quoted from other scholars. (An article I co-wrote uses some slashes — but not the part I wrote.) I’m well aware my writing has lots of its own stylistic excesses and deficiencies, but slash misuse is something I’ve always studiously avoided.
Dobson, Kit and Jason Haslam. “Readers’ Forum Introduction: Pro/Con/fessionals: (Re)defining Ourselves and the Profession.” English Studies in Canada 35.4 (2009). 1-2.
Gilbert, Helen and Joanne Tomkins. Post-Colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics. London: Routledge: 1996.
Slemon, Stephen, ed. “Reader’s Forum: Why do I have to write like that?” English Studies in Canada 32.2-3 (2006): 1-37.