When I came across the word virgule I had to admit that I didn’t have a clue as to what it meant. But, then, when I researched it, I found that it did, indeed, have an important meaning. But I wouldn’t have guessed that there was a word assigned to it.
A virgule is the backward slash you apply when you are using two adjoining words for which you have a choice. We see it most commonly when a writer uses the term “he/she.” It means that the content applies equally to the two words.
In this day of political correctness we tend to be very cautious about using gender-specific language unless it is perfectly clear that it only applies to one gender. For instance, when we talk about a patient going to a gynecologist, we can be fairly certain that it’s okay to use the term “she” without a virgule. However, a man who is experiencing breast cancer may, well, visit a gynecologist’s office. So perhaps it’s best to use the virgule just to be careful. Perhaps the better example would be a woman visiting a prostate specialist. I can’t imagine a reason that a woman would be going there alone.
There are a number of suggestions out there to replace the virgule in the he-she situation:
“Zhe” (also “ze”), “zher(s)” (also “zer” or “zir”), “shi”/”hir”, and “zhim” (also “mer”) for “he or she”, “his or her(s)”, and “him or her”, respectively; ‘self (for himself/herself); and hu, hus, hum, humself (for s/he, his/hers, him/her, himself/herself). “Thon” is an additional term which had a brief life at the end of the last century.”*
There is some degree of any of these configurations being cumbersome. However, in an era in which gender identity is so important, it is appropriate to take the time to be clear.
There are other uses for the virgule. Perhaps the most common is the backslash used to separate verses of poetry when writing them in narrative form. The Oxford Dictionary points out that the word is French and its original meaning seems to have been “comma.” For quite some period of time the virgule was used in places where we might be more inclined to use a comma (although the proper use of the comma is widely disputed, as I have indicated a number of times.)
It is easy to see how this was interpreted as a rule in the writing of poetry. However, as the comma has become more and more common in its usage, the virgule has slipped into its place.
There is an interesting difference in the way in which one applies a virgule when writing. We are instructed to leave no spaces before or after the slash in common usage, as in he/she. However, when used in the poetic structure, a space is called for before and after the slash.
Image Credit: About Education