Saturday, May 13, 2006

Quibbling over And/Or

What does the phrase and/or mean? Once we use or, don’t we nullify and? Jason Paukowits, an analyst for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, remembers hearing me say in a writing class that or will stand in just fine for and/or, so he e-mailed me: “Can you explain to me the rationale behind using or rather than and/or? I believe that you are right, but I am having trouble convincing others of this.”

OK. Let’s look at this sentence:

Please pay $100 by check and/or money order.

Clearly, we mean, “check or money order.” After all, we wouldn't want some of the payment by check and the balance by money order.

Here’s a trickier example:

The boss said that Jack and/or Jill must attend the meeting.

To the boss, it doesn’t matter if only one attends, so she should have written or. To Jack and Jill, however, both may elect to attend. If they do, they may be wasting company resources because one of them could have stayed back in the office and written reports instead of attending the meeting. Therefore, for clarity the boss should have written, “Jack or Jill must attend the meeting,” because as their boss it really should matter to her that only one attends.

Another example:

If you hold a United States and/or European Union passport, you must pay the value-added tax.

If you hold one passport or the other, then you must comply with the tax law. If you hold one passport, you must pay the tax; if you hold both, you must pay the tax as well. So what’s the difference? A US, an EU, or a US and EU passport holder must pay tax. Therefore, the or is sufficiently clear.

The phrase and/or indicates that any of the possible stated conditions may be true, but so does the word or. Therefore and/or is redundant. Legalistic thinkers, however, argue that and/or removes the possible ambiguity of the following sentences:

  • You may write the chief executive officer, chief operating officer, and/or chief financial officer.
  • Feel free to phone, fax, and/or e-mail me.

The phrase and/or, lawyers may contend, asserts that your three contact choices are available and combinable. If such were the case, however, then the word and should suffice. The point is that by eliminating and/or, you may find a more clear way of expressing what you need to.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: