Brett Reynolds (who writes the blog English, Jack) raised an interesting question of detail about English grammar the other day in an email to me and Rodney Huddleston: What is the syntactic category (part of speech) of slash, as used in There is also a study slash guest bedroom, or We need a corkscrew slash bottle opener? (Brett's email, incidentally, provided what I think is the right answer.)
The syntactic categories of a language are supposed to be grammatically definable natural classes of words that share syntactic properties with each other to an interesting degree — to a degree that clearly makes it easier to describe how sentences are put together. You can assume for present purposes that the categories to choose from are the ones used in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language: Noun (dog, gratitude, . . .), Verb (walk, instantiate, . . .), Adjective (good, ridiculous, . . .), Adverb (carefully, soon, . . .), Preposition (of, through, . . .), Determinative (the, some, . . .), Subordinator (that, whether, . . .), Coordinator (and, or, . . .), or Interjection (ouch, hey, . . .). Where would you put slash? (In the use exemplified by the sentence given above, that is.) Think about it a little before you read on.
The CGEL list of categories isn't definitive, of course. Huddleston and I didn't get it from God. (In post-Babel times He has been regrettably silent on the topic of how exactly human languages are to be analysed.) Our proposed list has the status of a hypothesis. The full inventory of possible categories is a matter for actual investigation of human languages. At any given point we linguists might be shown wrong in what we have assumed:
- two categories we had taken to be distinct might be in fact collapsible;
- some category might be shown to be completely eliminable by rediagnosing all of its members as belonging elsewhere;
- some new set of facts from a language might reveal the necessity of an entirely new category that we had not previously entertained as a possibility.
Well, comments were left open for a little while without me giving the answer, and the first comment was posted within four minutes flat: db48x said confidently: "It's punctuation, of course." Funny how people simply do not read the instructions! Punctuation is the topic of a whole chapter of CGEL, but is not on the list of syntactic categories that I gave. Nor is the word "slash" (as opposed to "/", which I never mentioned) a punctuation mark: it has a pronunciation, it has a spelling entirely composed of letters… Its etymology, of course, is that it's the name of a non-alphabet printing character. But I didn't want an etymology for it. I wanted a category. I'm afraid db48x gets an F.
Later Hamish and various other people said "conjunction". Same answer: read the instructions. The old-fashioned word "conjunction" was traditionally used for a mish-mash of coordinators, subordinators, and prepositions taking clause complements, and it's no damn use. The analysis that used it is a complete crock. But above all, it wasn't on the list, and you get no points at all for answers that aren't on the list. But I repeat myself. But I repeat myself.
Richard's comment said it was "a coordinator for adjectives only", but then he immediately contradicted himself, deciding that it "can be seen an adjective", apparently meaning an adjective that modifies coordinators rather than nouns. I truly have no idea what the great public out there imagines adjectives might be, but people sure are a long way away from grasping the concept. (Richard added one further suggestion: that slash might be "defined as an adverb due to ontological reasons", and I am even further away from being able to understand that. About a million miles away, in fact. Ontology is the philosophical study of what things actually exist and what things are just fictions. For example, some people think there actually are sentences, physically, and we hear them and see them; others think sentences exist physically but evanescently as transitory brain states; others think they exist outside of space and time and we only have access to them through intuition; and still others think they are nonexistent and linguists' talk about them among mathematicians is just a kind of useful fiction. There is no way to connect up ontology with the business of classifying words as adjectives or adverbs on the basis of their syntactic behaviors, it seems to me.)
Next, Dierk said slash was a noun. Well, in a sentence like There were two large slashes across the middle of the painting, it is. But not in the examples I gave. It simply isn't in a location where any noun would fit. It can be a verb, too: The madman slashed the painting. But not in the examples I gave. Read the instructions.
Finally, we got somewhere: Chris said it was a coordinator, adding unnecessarily: "Strikes me as so blatantly obvious there must be a catch." (After that comments flooded in faster than I could keep up, and the commenters didn't read all the earlier comments before commenting; you will see the resultant chaos below.)
There is no catch. Slash is a coordinator. But it isn't so blatantly obvious, for at least two reasons, the first being that some people were wildly wrong about it. But more seriously, there is an alternative: slash could be at first sight be a preposition. Prepositions (unlike nouns or adjectives) can stand between nouns: must have study near guest bedroom; corkscrew with bottle opener, etc. So it is at least conceivable that preposition might be the right answer, and Chris gave no arguments against that.
Well, it seems to me that there is a very nice argument in favor of it being a coordinator. With coordinators you can get what is called multiple coordination, as in red and orange and green and yellow and blue, which doesn't group the color names together in clusters of two, it just connects all of them. With prepositions you don't get that. You can say glass of milk or glass of beer or glass of wine, but not *glass of milk of beer of wine. And although you can say I saw a kitten on a box on a table on a platform, it isn't true if what you saw was a platform on which were situated a box that had nothing on top of it, a table with a clear top over on the other side of the platform, and a kitten wandering around somewhere. It means the kitten was on top of the box, and the box was on the table top, and the table was on the platform. They are nested phrases: a table on a platform modifies box, and so on.
That isn't true for I saw a kitten and a box and a table and a platform:
that could be true without any of the four things having any particular spatial relationship.
The key point is that it seems to me that you can have phrases like this:
At the top of the stairs on the left is a sort of spare bedroom slash boxroom slash clothes-drying room slash sewing room.
There's no grouping in that example: the room is claimed to fulfil all of those functions at once. You understand the phrase in a way that doesn't need brackets. Slash works like a coordinator, not like a preposition. That seems to me to be a new discovery about English. And a fairly surprising one, since the class of coordinators is thought of as an extremely small, closed category that has hardly ever expanded since the Middle Ages (when at some point the preposition buton, meaning "outside", turned into the modern-day coordinator but). We seem to have actually added a coordinator to the language.
Two other update points:
- My University of Edinburgh colleague Heinz Giegerich, Professor of English Linguistics, has pointed out to me that although slash has the syntax of a coordinator, it seems strongly inclined toward being used with lexical rather than phrasal categories, and especially noun-based predicate complements. She's an film actor slash model is very natural, but it is very hard to imagine anyone saying ??This is where I watch TV slash play video games (the result of using slash to coordinate verb phrases). I think he's right on that. With clauses, I think there is no possibility of using it at all: consider *I think I'm having hallucinations slash someone is playing tricks on me. Doesn't seem like English at all, does it?
- And I should mention that Brett Reynolds thinks cum (borrowed from Latin, where it was a preposition meaning "with") works the same way as slash in modern English (somebody else mentions that in a comment below).
One other thing: I made up my example with multiple coordination using slash. I was wondering if anyone could find me a real example of this sort on the web — no time to do my own work because I had a lunch appointment with a recent PhD graduate. People have found some below now. Jesse Sheidlower exhibits some nice examples of slash in multiple coordination that he found in Oxford English Dictionary files; but they are not in the dictionary itself, which lists slash solely as a noun and a verb.