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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

18 March 2010

Of vice and virgules

What other people consider bad habits and simple grammar mistakes are to this copyeditor sins and vices. I've never compiled a list of the seven deadly writing vices, but if I were, I suspect misuse of the virgule would be on there.

Don't sigh in relief, thinking you could not have committed a sin of virgules because you don't even know what a virgule is. You type virgules dozens of times a day because the virgule—otherwise known as the slash, the slant, the solidus, or the oblique—is a component of every Web address.

So what are the sins of virgules? First, I'll describe some proper uses of the virgule:

1. In Web addresses: for example,

2. In fractions: for example, 1/2, 3/8, 1/100

3. In compound units: for example, miles/hour, milligrams/liter, feet/second

4. In the phrase "and/or" (although the phrase itself is inelegant)

5. In date abbreviations: for example, 03/12/2010 (although keep in mind that a European may interpret that date as December 3, 2010)

6. In some specialized scientific uses: for example, to show a person has two different alleles of a gene, such as G6PD*A/G6PD*B

7. In phrases showing alternative names or spellings for the same person or thing: for example, Inanna/Ishtar, Hercules/Heracles, Jekyll/Hyde

8. In running text to show the original line breaks in a poem: for example, "I think that I shall never see/a poem lovely as a tree"

But other uses of the virgule shriek like fingernails on a blackboard:

1. In place of a hyphen: for example, "the Boston/Washington train" instead of "the Boston-Washington train"

2. In lists: for example, "On my vacation I toured London/Paris/Rome/Venice."

3. In compound units with three or more units: for example, feet/second/second should be feet/second^2 (that is, seconds squared)

4. In place of the word "or" in most situations: for example, "he/she" (try "he or she" or reword instead)

5. In place of the word "and": for example, "The position is open to physicians/scientists."

6 (and most important of all). In situations in which it's unclear whether the virgule stands for a hyphen, "and," "or," or "and/or": for example, "The applicant shall take oral/written tests"; "The applicant must have an M.D./Ph.D."


Booksigning in Ohio

I'll be signing my novel Like Mayflies in a Stream on Saturday, 27 March 2010, from 2 to 4 pm at Dark Star Books and Comics in Yellow Springs. The store is located in downtown Yellow Springs at 237 Xenia Avenue. If you're in the area, please drop by to say "hi" or to pet Mr. Eko, the store cat.


I won't be posting next week. Please stop by again at the end of March for a new post.


Charles Gramlich said...

I remember my first virgule. I guess everyone does! Sorry, couldn't help that. It's been a long semester.

But here's an issue that I'm curious about. Most people, including Lana, use the virgule with dates, as in 3/11/2010.

I've always put dates this way, 3-11-2010.

Is the virgule correct here or does it really matter?

ninthmuse (roz m) said...

I admit to being guilty of "he/she".

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, using virgules or hyphens in dates is a matter of personal and publication style. I prefer the hyphen myself; it's faster to write and never can be mistaken for a 1 or a 7.

ROZ, I'm so shocked I have no response.

Farrah Rochon said...

As someone who edits my raw work you already know that I know nothing about grammar. I'm sure you could find a couple of mistakes in this response. :) Thanks for the grammar lesson!

Rick said...

And here I thought virgule was a horoscope sign, as in "What's your virgule?"

Anonymous said...

I am ashamed to admit, I do occassionally commit the sin of misusing virgules - but it was in ignorance. No more, now that I know better.

Quick question, I live OS (the Australian who met you at World Fantasy Con, we have stunning similar names) and want to buy a signed copy of your book. Any ideas who I could purchase a signed copy from?

Lana Gramlich said...

Rock it at the signing!

Steve Malley said...

(wipes sweat from brow-- innocent at least of *this* sin)

Hope your signing went well!! :D

Ken Schneyer said...

"Virgule" is also the French word for "comma."