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I received the following sentence from someone which read:

"Is there a reason I /wouldn't/ want to go?"

What is / / used for in this context? My guess is a textual representation of upward intonation for emphasis but I cannot find anything on it.

Note: I've seen many articles that say "it's for a programming comment." I'm a programmer and am aware of that but it doesn't seem to be used as a comment in this case.

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    Possibly relevant: Davo's answer to Quotation Marks Before and After Video-Game Titles which links to a Wikipedia article describing slashes as a possible substitute for italic type – herisson May 1 '17 at 23:43
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    Another use for the slash (not apparently the intent here) is to denote the end of "lines" in a poem. – Hot Licks May 1 '17 at 23:53
  • My first thought was that of @HotLicks, but could it be possible that it is denoting emphasis in a non-standard way? – Dog Lover May 2 '17 at 0:13
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    //The common use as a programming comment is two slashes, in a row, without anything (not even a space) in between the slashes. The double-slash doesn't have any effect on content before the double-slash. This can vary based on which programming language is used, but the rules I just stated are quite popular/common (used in multiple languages). – TOOGAM May 2 '17 at 4:08
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    It has nothing to do with programming per se. Using symbols as formatting cues goes back to a time when plain text communication was the norm, such as in newsgroup. Some of them survive to this day, such as underscores (italic) and asterisks (bold) in Markdown, the markup language used on SE. Slashes were not used as much, but the fact that they are slanted would suggest italics. – isanae May 2 '17 at 4:25
72

In the sentence quoted, I would interpret the marks as an indication that the enclosed word would be printed in an alternative typeface—italic or bold—if the layout conformed to conventional orthography, where the sentence would be laid out

"Is there some reason I wouldn't want to go?".

In other contexts, for example, a program listing, they might be indicative of a comment, although this might vary by the language, as different languages might use different punctuation protocols to denote a comment.

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    +1 I would go even further, and guess that italics are probably intended, given that both italic type and these slashes slant to the right. Compare | non-italics | and / italics /. – 1006a May 2 '17 at 2:30
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    The weird thing is.. it was a Github comment. Why not just use the italics from the markdown support? – Growler May 2 '17 at 2:46
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    @Growler Maybe the user is used to commenting somewhere else where there isn't an actual italic option. If he/she commonly texts using this convention, for example, it would be easy to default to it in other contexts. – 1006a May 2 '17 at 4:12
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    @Growler: Are you aware of the origins of the markdown syntax? In the past email programs only printed plain ASCII text without formatting. Thus people developed conventions like **bold** and /italics/ to get the reader's attention. Markdown took these conventions and attempts to format them into HTML. Like any user-generated conventions different people have different ideas of how to do something so this is one convention the creator of markdown probably didn't use much – slebetman May 2 '17 at 7:40
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    Compare with using * around words for *bold* or underscores for _underlining_. Probably the slash for italics is least well known but it is the same idea. – Calchas May 2 '17 at 7:40
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This is a common convention in text-only communication, such as Usenet, email or IRC. Without typography, some indications of emphasis are commonly used:

  • _underline_
  • /italic/
  • *bold*
  • -deleted- (rare)

(Sorry, no authoritative reference - just personal experience).

The use of // to indicate italics goes back earlier, to typewritten documents; the other forms could be created by overtyping.

Some of these conventions have influenced the Markdown used here on Stack Exchange.

  • And they come from typewriter shorthand for printing the alternate forms. – Joshua May 3 '17 at 2:18
  • I did suspect that, but I'm not quite old enough to have regularly used a mechanical typewriter... I'll edit that fact into my answer. – Toby Speight May 3 '17 at 7:32
  • Underscores actually denote italics, as in the markdown on this site. Underlining is never used in typography, so there's no need to have a notation for it. However, in the old days[TM], in a typewritten or handwritten manuscript, one would use underlining to indicate that the given text should be set in italics in the final printed version. (Or, if you prefer, the underscores do stand for underlining, but they mean "Please put this in italics.") – David Richerby May 3 '17 at 9:04
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    Thanks @David; I had wondered why Stack Markdown used _ for italic. I stand by my claim that underscores represent underline, thought that in turn represents italic. Another popular convention is to underline headings with a row of =, although that probably needs no explanation. – Toby Speight May 3 '17 at 9:08
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    @DavidRicherby: Underlining is not often needed in most forms of printed text, but is often used in things like printed contracts to indicate places where values have been supplied for various parameters. Before the days of mouse-over highlighting it was also used for highlighting web links because the difference between independent highlighted words and a single hilighted phrase can be be significant. – supercat May 4 '17 at 4:33
4

That can be a letter from an old person. Many old typewriter machines had no parenthesis characters, specially in foreign languages, where they use more letters than in the English alphabet, so the standard had to be modified. So people who learned typing on those machines used the / character in place of parenthesis. Then it can mean many things still, like an alternate thought, an internal note, or anything a parenthesis can be used for.

  • An old person? I use this all the time. Hopefully 30 isn't "old" yet :) – Lightness Races with Monica May 2 '17 at 10:12
  • Well I don't tell my age :) but I have used typewriters - in my childhood. I was so happy with computers to have more characters (not only that, of course), and later the printers... this is history already. But I always spot people who still using /, and yes, you are right, even young people do it. I was always interested why? – Ho Zong May 2 '17 at 14:42
  • It was common on the early internet. Granted, folks on the early internet are "old" now, but the practice was passed down through the 90s and even 00s via bulletin boards and IRC. – Lightness Races with Monica May 2 '17 at 14:48
  • I was there and seen it, the whole story from the beginning, but always thought that they must be old, with the / :) so many misunderstanding with people... – Ho Zong May 2 '17 at 15:12
  • Upvoting because I just saw my mother using /slashes/ instead of parenthesis on Facebook. She's a journalist, she used a typewriter regularly most of her life, and I do remember her small typewriter not having parenthesis keys. She did use slashes in her manuscripts. But I totally didn't realize until I saw her doing this now. – SáT May 3 '17 at 22:12
2

This is almost certainly Org mode syntax for italics. As the guide states:

You can make words *bold*, /italic/, _underlined_, =code= and ~verbatim~, and, if you must, ‘+strike-through+’.

People tend to use the markup language they are familiar with. Presumably the user who posted the comment uses Org mode and the Emacs text editor regularly.

For an incomplete comparison of various lightweight markup language syntax, see this table on Wikipedia. You'll notice that a few languages use slashes to represent italics, although most that do use //double slashes//. Org mode seems to be the only one that uses /single slashes/.

Regarding the reasoning behind using forward slashes, the Creole creators explain:

A slash (/) looks like slanted italics, so it is intuitive and thus easier to remember.

It would seem that at least a few lightweight markup language creators agree with that reasoning.

0

Note: I have frequently seen the use of sed's s parameter use slashes. The "sed" command is commonly found in Unix, and is downloadable for Windows. Here is an example:

echo I like blue apples | sed s/blue/red/

(That command will say "I like red apples". The part between the first couple of slashes gets replaced by the part between the next couple of slashes.)

Actually, I could also have said "sed s!blue!red!" because sed doesn't care much about which character is used as a separator, as long as each separator matches the first one used (right after the letter "s" in the parameter). That said, I have seen slashes used as the separator very, very frequently.

Especially when I suspect I am among a Unix-literate group, I might often point out speling errors (as shown in the example).

I know this doesn't precisely match the example you gave, but it is usage that I've seen frequently, so I figured it can be worth being aware of (especially if you did encounter a case of s/old/new/ but just didn't remember the s at the start.

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    s/speling/spelling/ and s/start./start)./ – TOOGAM May 2 '17 at 3:49
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    What does this have to do with the question? – Lightness Races with Monica May 2 '17 at 10:12
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    This is another way in which programmers might use slashes in a sentence. The OP was the one who suggested it might have something to do with programming; even though it didn't, I think that makes this answer relevant. – stannius May 2 '17 at 18:44
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I interpret it as "I am not sure whether to go or not. Do you have a reason that you think would make me NOT want to go? Alternatively, do you have a reason that you think would make me want to go?"

  • 1
    OP is asking specifically about the use of the slashes, not about the meaning of the sentence. – MPW May 3 '17 at 14:35

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