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?

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