And or or or and/or?

rogersgeorge on April 15th, 2012

I left the punctuation out of the title to get your attention. It should be this: “And” or “or” or “and/or”?

These two conjunctions sometimes give people problems, especially when either word makes sense. So here are a few guidelines.

“And” creates a plural. (The correct name for this kind of plural is compound.) Dick and Jane are siblings. Naturally, we have some exceptions. When a single thing has a compound name, we still use the singular. Research and Development is a new department at our company, which is named Swift & Co.

“Or” takes its number from the last item. Either ham or eggs are fine with me. Either eggs or ham is enough.  (Taking a grammatical feature based on the closest item is called attraction, by the way.)

Then we have the ugly formation “and/or.” I read that a town once legislated the word “andor,” but it didn’t catch on. Usually this pseudo-word is a testament to sloppy thinking. Ask yourself, “How much is necessary for this sentence to be true?” If one of the items is sufficient, even if they both can happen then use “or.” Most of the time this is the case.  If both things happening is genuinely a third item, then add “or both” to your sentence. Usually I find “and/or” in material written by amateur writers, so my handy example sentences are (ahem) protected by a confidentially agreement, so I’ll try to make something up:

If your tires have bald spots and/or start to hydroplane on wet pavement, it’s time to get new tires.

When the government is corrupt, the people can get restless and/or rebel.

Obviously either condition should be enough to make you start looking for a tire store. “Or” will do just fine. For that second sentence, I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide.

All this about these conjunctions was stimulated by an interesting sentence I found in a book I’m reading, Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells. It’s about the results of the creation of agriculture on the current state of humanity. It ranges far wider than Jared Diamond’s essay on that topic, Humanity’s Worst Mistake.

There are two solutions to this problem: use less energy or find another source.

He should have used “and” instead of “or” here. Most of the time “or” connotes separation (XOR in Boolean algebra) but the beginning of the sentence clearly joins the two as both being a choice, and they aren’t mutually exclusive anyway, so this is better:

There are two solutions to this problem: use less energy and find another source.

Some of you might accuse me of nit picking, but the sentence jumped out at me. Remember, you want your readers to think about the content, not the writing.

I like to include a picture in these posts, so here’s a picture of the kind of seeds pictured on the cover of the book:

Interesting choice of seed, eh?

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2 Responses to “And or or or and/or?”

  1. It appears the sentence from the book and your improvement version are exactly the same:

    There are two solutions to this problem: use less energy or find another source.

    There are two solutions to this problem: use less energy or find another source.

    Did you intend to type “and” instead of “or” in the “better” version?

  2. I did, and I fixed it. Thank you! I remember copying and pasting to save myself some typing, then I let it slip my mind to change the conjunction. Funny how I can proofread something several times and still miss something like that.

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