Aug 17, 2007

The Solidus vs. The Virgule

The solidus character, ⁄, also known as a shilling mark, is a punctuation mark; it is not found on standard keyboards. The virgule, /, also known as slash or stroke, is also a punctuation mark and is found on standard keyboards. It may also be called an oblique, diagonal, separatrix, scratch comma, slant, or forward slash.

So what’s the difference between the two? Good question. Most people do not distinguish between the two characters, and when there is no alternative it is acceptable to use the virgule in place of the solidus. But we’re not most people, are we?

Visually, the slope of the virgule is more steep than the slope of the solidus. The virgule is the more common of the two marks, appearing in applications from bowling scores to URLs (contrary to popular belief, there are no “backslashes” in a URL). The solidus is used in monetary notation and to display fractions.

It is interesting to note that the ISO and Unicode both designate the solidus character as the “FRACTION SLASH”, while designating the slash character “SOLIDUS”; this contradicts long-established English typesetting terminology.

**HISTORY ALERT** (Those of you who bore easily may want to stop reading now.)

The virgule symbol itself goes back to the days of ancient Rome. In the early modern period, in the Fraktur script, which was widespread through Europe in the Middle Ages, one virgule (/) represented a comma, while two virgules (//) represented a dash.

In the British Commonwealth, currency amounts in pounds, shillings, and pence were abbreviated using '£', 's.', and 'd.', collectively £sd, referring to the libra, solidus, and denarius. The 's.' was written using a long s, ∫, which was further abbreviated to the '⁄', along with suppressing the 'd.'. Thus '2 pounds, 10 shillings, and 6 pence' would be written as '£2,10⁄6', instead of '£2, 10s. 6d.'. It is this usage which caused the names solidus, due to the historical root of the abbreviation, and also shilling mark to be used to refer to this character.

BTW, if you haven't already figured it out, the character pictured above is a virgule.

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