I recently edited this question. One of the changes I made was the following:

  1. "Knowing how to jump and being able to run was/were crucial during my high jump career."

  2. Knowing how to jump and being able to run (was|were) crucial during my high jump career.

This is based on a vague memory I have that this is the proper way to indicate options among words (to indicate that the sentence is intended with one word or the other, not a semantic combination of both).

The question has since been edited back to something more like the original, but with added spaces that seem especially strange to me:

  1. Knowing how to jump and being able to run **was / were** crucial during my high jump career.

This made me wonder why I think it should be the way I wrote it, and what the official way might be.

I’m having a really hard time searching for a rule for this online. I’m not sure how to describe what I’m looking for in unambiguous terms, and every search string I try gives me inapplicable results.

Does anyone know of an official practice for presenting a choice between words?

This doesn’t strike me as something that would be especially concerning to learners of English, but it does seem like something that would interest members of the community as users of this site. Of course if I’m wrong on that, then I’m happy to migrate or delete this question as appropriate.

  • 1
    Please don't delete this question! It's one of the better meta questions I've seen.
    – J.R. Mod
    Dec 7, 2014 at 11:19
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    Also, linguists often indicate an empty option with the empty set symbol ∅, which is usually called "zero" in this context. Writing { ∅ / ?this / *that } is normal enough.
    – user230
    Dec 7, 2014 at 13:10
  • In contrast, (was|were) looks like a programmer wrote it, although I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with that.
    – user230
    Dec 7, 2014 at 13:13
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    You might consider asking about these conventions on Linguistics.SE.
    – user230
    Dec 7, 2014 at 13:14

2 Answers 2


I've started using a convention employed by linguist Renaat Declerck: keep the '/', which for practically everybody signifies alternatives, but enclose the alternatives in curly brackets, which have in ordinary written English no particular significance:

Knowing how to jump and being able to run {was/were} crucial during my high jump career.

Declerck also marks unacceptable alternatives with the usual asterisk:

Knowing how to jump and being able to run {*was/were} crucial during my high jump career.

But I've run into trouble using that with Markup, so I've taken to using the ∗ character, either straight or superscripted:

Knowing how to jump and being able to run {∗was/were} crucial during my high jump career.

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    I like the "&lowast" usage, but personally I prefer vertical bar | rather than slash / as a separator between "one of" alternatives, and I'm inclined to enclose the complete list in [square brackets]. That's presumably from my background in programming / technical "syntax" documentation. Dec 5, 2014 at 16:42
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    @FumbleFingers I go with the / because that's common in written English ("and/or"), and use curly brackets because [] signifies an editorial interpolation in written English. And doesn't [] signify 'optional item' in BNF? Dec 5, 2014 at 17:59
  • Yeah - I often specifically intend "optional" if I enclose something in [], so in the case in point I'd more likely go for just "delineating" the alternatives by using bold or italic. But I don't deny I'm far from consistent, and the syntax of HTML links (esp in comments on SO) sometimes forces me to use {curly brackets} anyway. Dec 5, 2014 at 18:19
  • I know I'm new here, but I would avoid using [] because of the editorial changes to quotes: "She is my favorite cat." => "[Fluffy] is my favorite cat." Also, [sic] is the proper formatting for sic (I don't know how else to phrase that).
    – miltonaut
    Dec 6, 2014 at 16:38
  • @miltonaut Exactly. And (at least in MLA-governed style) '[...]' is now the approved way of indicating an editorial omission, where bare '...' is taken to represent ellipsis points present in the quoted original. Dec 6, 2014 at 16:51
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    When we use the slash (as in and/or), I believe that means either word could be used, or both. For example, "Please give me some food and/or drink" means that I would gladly accept food, or gladly accept drink, or gladly accept food & drink. In this case, you wouldn't use both, so I think maybe the | might be more appropriate. I like those curly braces, though.
    – J.R. Mod
    Dec 7, 2014 at 11:17

Er, I'm the one that did that edit. :)

Here's the reasoning I was using when I did it:

  • Since I was going to edit the question post anyway to put the tags in, I decided that I was going to at first change "(was|were)" ==> "[was/were]", because the "(…)" is usually used to mean that the text inside is optional and can be removed from the example sentence. But that is not the case in the OP's example, and so, I did that change. The "[…]" is often used in parsing to highlight certain text to the reader (in much of the grammar material that I'm currently looking at).

  • I then changed the "|" into "/" because it seemed to me that that appeared to be the more usual symbol used in the posts here and seemed to look better overall.

  • I liked the original bolded text, but everything seemed to run into each other, and so, I ended up deleting the "[" and "]" since they weren't really necessary here. It looked a bit better, but still looked too crunched up, and so, I then ended up inserting the spaces so that it became "was / were".

So, basically, the history was:

  • (was|were) ==> [was|were] ==> [was/were] ==> was/were ==> was / were

Now as to the OP's question for this meta-thread, as to what might be the "official practice" on these sites, er, . . ., well, don't know if there is one or what it would be if there were. Ah just a tiger that types with his claws.

  • I had no doubt there was plenty of reasoning behind your change! It just made me wonder if there was a best practice floating around out there. Dec 3, 2014 at 22:25
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    I think “[was|were]” might be the best way to write it, since pipes delimit choices in other scenarios and square brackets at least get away from the implied optional nature of parentheses while allowing non-confusing spaces. The problem I had with “was/were” is that it’s the format I would use if I meant to say both items, like “The person or people responsible was/were punished.” but I guess even in that case you’re applying one or the other in a way. Dec 3, 2014 at 22:26
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    I think that it might be useful to create a meta thread with sort of a community "style guide" so that we don't step on each other. It took me a while to figure out that () meant optional, and as someone who writes a lot of code, "|" is the obvious choice for me to mean "or". I think my idea that brackets mean optional came from Linux man page usage statements. Every programmer knows parens are for grouping ;)
    – ColleenV
    Dec 3, 2014 at 23:12
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    @ColleenV But in many formalisms square brackets indicate 'option' not in the sense that you may choose among elements listed within the brackets but in the sense that you may omit what is enclosed within the brackets. Dec 6, 2014 at 16:58
  • @StoneyB I'm not arguing for a particular syntax so much as just having the ELL preferred way documented for amateurs like myself. The style I use is derived from the realm of specifications, algorithms, and code and is probably completely unsuitable when writing about language. I'm fairly good at following documented guidelines though! :)
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6, 2014 at 17:14
  • @ColleenV House rules are nice, if you can get people to observe them. ;| Dec 6, 2014 at 17:36

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