In some situations when you’re typing (or tapping) some text, every last character counts. This includes any kind of live online conversation where your correspondent is awaiting your reply. It could also include the use of any medium that deliberately enforces succinctness – even for formal and non-transient messages with a wide audience. An example of such a medium is Twitter (with its 140 character limit). A (random) example of such a message is this tweet:
Dept for BEIS (@beisgovuk) September 13, 2016
Notice the use of an ampersand, a forward slash, and two abbreviations.
Now, let’s say I wanted to reply to that tweet, and part of what I want to say is “Personal relationships matter in all walks of life, not just in business”. Or what if I just wanted to correct a typo? Well, I am not aware of any shorthand in widespread use to accomplish those things. So I would like to propose that everyone adopts a shorthand used by certain geeks.
Under my proposal, I could reply to that tweet with just these 29 characters, as a way of getting across my message that “Personal relationships matter in all walks of life, not just in business”:
s/business/all walks of life/
If they had misspelled “minister”, I could correct them with just these 19 characters:
Now for two general examples (the ones in the image at the top of this blog post). Firstly, the example I used in the post title would be:
And secondly, sometimes commas save lives:
s/Let's eat grandpa!/Let's eat, grandpa!/
I think you get the idea.
As you have probably worked out, the shorthand always starts with “s/”, then has the text to be replaced, then “/”, then the replacement text, then a final “/”.
The “s” stands for for substitute.
For what it’s worth, this ‘syntax’ for precisely defining a textual substitution was popularized by a software utility called sed, which has been around since 1973. Geeks may want to look into it, but I am urging non-geeks to also adopt this syntax as a shorthand – without needing to learn about its origins.
A message using this shorthand contains:
- the text to be replaced
- the replacement text
- just 4 extra characters
There’s no need to use speech marks or anything to indicate the start and end of the texts, which means that they can be part of the texts. For example:
s/he said "yes but"/he said "yes" but/
In fact, any character can be part of the texts, except a forward slash. The software utility I mentioned above actually has a way of dealing with them too. But I recommend that in non-geek contexts, if the replacement text, or the text to be replaced, contains a forward slash, just don’t use this shorthand. Instead, pick another way to express your message.
Is there a name for this particular shorthand? Well, in a non-geek context I propose it be known as the “everyday substitution syntax”.
Here is a list of Twitter recommendations, including several shorthands (such as using “+” instead of “and”). Perhaps the everyday substitution syntax will be included on lists like that in the future.
I have been using the term “forward slash” for the following character:
This character has various other names, including just “slash” – which is the title of the relevant Wikipedia article.
In case it ever gets deleted, here is a screenshot of the aforementioned tweet: