An American Editor

March 11, 2013

The Drama of “And” and “Or”

One thing that I see with great frequency in manuscripts I edit is the and/or construction. I see it so often that I wonder if authors have a specific key that automatically inserts and/or into their writing.

It isn’t that and/or isn’t sometimes correct; rather, it has become a way for an author to fudge. Basically and/or adds drama to a manuscript because it leaves the reader wondering what precisely is meant (assuming the reader thinks about it at all). And/or gives at least two options, both of which are true, both of which should be exclusive of the other.

The expression dates from the 19th century and is a legal and business expression that has made its way into the daily lexicon. It serves as a great way to not commit, to not make a decision. And because it is so ambiguous, it could lead to disastrous results. Consider if your doctor told you to take “10 mg of Xyz and/or 10 mg of Abc.” What do you do? Do you take both Xyz and Abc, which is what and implies, or do you take either Xyz or Abc, but not both, which is what or implies?

What I find interesting is how editors and authors rarely question the use of and/or. Edited manuscripts that I have reviewed for clients so rarely have a query asking an author what and/or means, that I wonder what the editor thinks it means. I try to make it habit to always query the and/or construction as follows:

AQ: Do you mean both Abc and Xyz? Or do you mean either Abc or Xyz but not both? Please clarify for the reader by rewriting and replacing the and/or with either both or but not both.

Of course, as is so often true with editorial queries, the query often goes unanswered, although I did have an author once reply, ” I mean both both and but not both and thus and/or.” I did try to point out the illogic of that position but and/or remained in every instance in the manuscript.

The point of noting the travails of using and/or is to note how easy it is for an editor to fall into the colloquial trap. We are not just editors; we also are readers and consumers. As readers and consumers, we have become inured to constructions such as and/or and too often skip over them, assuming that any reader will fully understand what is meant because we think we understand.

“We shall smite our enemies and/or their allies at the city gates” is a line from a novel I read quite a few years ago. However, the inanity of the sentence has stuck with me. My first question was, “Why is a novel using the and/or construction?” My second question  was, “Are not my enemy’s allies also my enemy?” But my most important question was, “Who will be smitten? Both my enemies and their allies or just their allies, which would let my enemies smite me?”

We editors have a lot of language prejudices, prejudices that distinguish one editor from another. For example, I loathe reading people that instead of people who, and I make it a point when editing to replace due to with what I think the author really means. (If I’ve gotten it wrong, won’t readers also get it wrong?) I also distinguish between since and because. Like my editor colleagues, I have more pet language peeves. Yet, many editors take an opposite view from mine — they don’t distinguish between since and because, considering that fight long ago resolved in favor of the words being synonymous; they don’t worry about the ambiguity of due to, arguing its use has become so common place that readers can ably substitute the correct words without any guidance; and they just ignore the that/who misuse because today’s readers are unaware of the distinction. And, unfortunately, too many editors find and/or acceptable, arguing that it covers all the possibilities — which is exactly the problem: the possibilities aren’t being narrowed.

Yet, and/or is unlike the since/because issue. English has come to accept since and because as synonymous, and thus readers are not really misled by the use of one or the other. But and/or is different; it is a construction that cannot lead to clarity, only to obfuscation. This is not to claim that I never use the construct; I do — and I shouldn’t — but like all other users of English, I, too, fall into the trap of lazy usage. I do not use the construct, however, when precision of communication is required, and I do query the construction when hired to apply my professional editorial skills.

As I have said many times, the key to good editing is to ensure that the author’s intended message is communicated clearly and without misunderstanding (or the possibility of misunderstanding). That goal requires that the and/or construct be abandoned with alacrity by authors and be questioned every time by editors. Remembering that the construct had its origins in legalese, which is noted for its obfuscatory tendencies, should suffice to encourage editors to challenge the construct’s use.

If you want support for a decision to avoid this construct, take heart that both Garner’s Modern American Usage 3rd ed. and Chicago Manual of Style 16th ed. urge avoiding this construct. For an interesting history of the construct, see Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994). But when questioning the construct’s use, be prepared to begin with “I say” rather than “Garner says” — think of how much more impressed a client will be when you are authoritative and resources like Garner and Chicago simply support your rationale rather than provide it!

Do you agree? Do you find the and/or construct acceptable?

9 Comments »

  1. In Spanish, it’s common to see the expression y/o (and/or), when it is always wrong, because in our language we have or inclusive (either “a” or “b” or both) and or exclusive (either “a” or “b”, but not both). When the editors replace it with the or inclusive, authors ussually get angry and they don’t accept it as a mistake. As you can see, the and/or is a problem in other languages too.

    Comment by Nur — March 11, 2013 @ 6:08 am | Reply

  2. I have never queried it, where the meaning (X or Y or both) made sense.

    Comment by Linda — March 11, 2013 @ 6:12 am | Reply

    • It seems to me that the and/or construction is never correct because a reader doesn’t know what the author means. Even if, as you posit, both make sense (i.e., x or y or both), the author needs to be queried to determine whether the “x or y or both” is correct. The construct is so often used, that it is, I think, difficult to know whether the author really intends what is implied. Besides, shouldn’t you be explaining to the author why you changed and/or to x or y or both? Or are you saying you leave the construct and/or?

      Comment by americaneditor — March 11, 2013 @ 6:32 am | Reply

  3. Writing is thinking made visible, and “and/or” signals lazy thinking, along with “and so on, and so forth.” People who use it tend to be “belt and suspenders” types: never content to let one clear word make the point, they add another. In thirty years, I’ve never found an instance where replacing “and/or” didn’t improve the sentence’s clarity (assuming the author’s intent could be deduced or rendered in response to a query).

    Comment by Will Harmon — March 11, 2013 @ 12:41 pm | Reply

  4. I won’t speak to the use in formal writing, but suppose I suggest going to a movie and/or dinner. Isn’t it understood that I would like you to a) go to a movie with me, b) go to a movie and have dinner with me or c) have dinner with me and that the choice is yours to make? I only use and/or in cases similar to my example. Is there another way to express these possibilities that I’m missing?

    Comment by le cul en rows — March 11, 2013 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

    • In the example you give, and/or is understood by the listener. Much is communicated by how we say things, which is why e-mail, which does not convey emotion well, often causes recipients to misunderstand. However, you could have as easily said, “I suggest we either go to a movie or to dinner or do both. What is your preference?” In your example, you are really asking a question. In written form where its use is objectinable, the and/or is not part of a question but of an affirmative statement, a directive: “Take me and/or John to the restaurant.” Should you take, me, or John, or both of us? How would you know without asking, “What do you mean?”

      Comment by americaneditor — March 11, 2013 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  5. Isn’t the and/or construction the tip of the iceberg. Worse is the use of / to mean and or or or both… there are so many lazy writers who do not make clear what they mean.

    Comment by susannah wight — March 12, 2013 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

  6. I generally see and/or used as a conditional. “John and I are both working late, but it’s possible one or both of us might be able to get away in time. Plan on taking me and/or John to the restaurant.” (It’s a rather rude and pushy example, but you get the point.) I don’t like it either, and I agree there’s always a better way to say it, but there are places where it’s not entirely inaccurate.

    Comment by arwenbicknell — March 13, 2013 @ 11:00 am | Reply

  7. “A and/or B” means “at least one of the following: A; B.” There’s no contradiction there; the reason it may appear that there is one is that usage of the word “or” is ambiguous with regards to exclusivity. In other words, “A or B” can mean either “exactly one of the following: A; B” or what I gave for “and/or,” depending on context, so theoretically “and/or” should be useless. The problem is that “and/or” is more precise, because it uses exactly one of these two definitions, so it’s not useless at all. It means that the set of possible answers consists of A, A and B, and B.

    While I agree that the word is in some cases overused, I think you’re seeing ignorance in place of a willful intent to be ambiguous.

    Comment by John Klepáč — March 26, 2013 @ 8:24 pm | Reply


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