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"And/Or": A Source of Vagueness, Clarity, or Both?

A recent blog post decried the use of and/or. Rich Adin makes the case that the conjunction is inaccurate. This, at least, is an improvement over the popular argument that and/or is "hideous" or "monstrous," but it isn't entirely true, either.

Vague from the Start

And/or was first used in the 19th century in legal texts, and by 1854 its use in contracts was being challenged in court as being vague. While one party could assume one meaning of and/or, the other party could assume a second, more advantageous meaning. Since then, many people, especially those in the legal profession, have called out against its use.

Criticism of and/or is frequently reduced to name-calling, however. Samuel Hardin Church seems to have been one of the first to get personal by calling the conjunction "a hideous invention" in 1920. Since then, many others have added their dislike to the chorus. Careful Writer author Theodore Bernstein called it "a visual and mental monstrosity." Others have simply called it "ugly."

When critics resort to aesthetics, they have no foundation for their dislike other than personal taste. While having personal dislikes is fine, advising others to follow suit is worthless. Writers and editors would be wise to ignore such advice.

Critics who challenge and/or's clarity have a good case, however. It essentially lays out three (or more) choices without actually making a choice. So if you are at a birthday party and say, "I'll have cake and/or ice cream, please," you're saying you'll have cake, ice cream, or both. You haven't made a decision, which is probably unwise when the server is holding a cake knife in her hand.

Look around, and you'll find no shortage of vague or inaccurate and/or usages. In particular are situations where the options offered are mutually exclusive:

This follows given the significant finding that teachers in schools with a higher percentage of students who receive free and/or reduced lunch are more likely to have interactive whiteboards in their classroom. —Journal of Instructional Psychology, September 2011

One student cannot receive a hot lunch both for free and at a reduced cost. It's one option or the other. A group can be made up of students who receive free lunches and students who received reduced-cost lunches, however. In this case, or alone would do the job and simplify the sentence:

a higher percentage of students who receive free or reduced lunch are more likely to have interactive whiteboards in their classroom

And/or Has Its Moments

That said, sometimes and/or is accurate. You can lay out three choices for the reader to choose from: A, B, or both. Though style guides are among those resources that generally disparage and/or, at least couple use it, and do so correctly (note: they are published by the same company):

A list of errata should be as concise as possible, making clear the location, the substance of the error, and the form of the correction. Italic type is used for editorial directions, and punctuation is included only where it is part of the error and/or the correction. —New Hart's Rules, 2005

The name of each enzyme consists of an italic three-letter prefix plus an identifying letter and/or numbers (no intervening spaces). —New Oxford Dictionary for Scientific Writers and Editors, 2009

In the first example, a list of errata should not use punctuation unless it is part of the error, part of the correction, or both. In the second example, the enzyme's name could include an identifying letter, identifying numbers, or both.

Certainly the writers could have simply said the equivalent of "A, B, or both." But the meaning is just as clear and precise with "A and/or B."

When and Where to Use It

Despite over a hundred years of advice against using and/or, English speakers and writers are clearly attached to it. A Google Books search returns 26,354 results for 2000-2010. A search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that academics have a fondness for this conjunction, and Google News demonstrates that journalists aren't afraid of it, either.

The trick to using and/or is the same as it is for any usage: you need to use it correctly and for an audience that will accept it.

And/or is fine for detailing three choices, as long as all three choices are possible and acceptable. When a choice needs to be made, though, and/or is a weaselly solution; it avoids making a choice at all.

And/or is generally acceptable in academic and business writing but discouraged in fiction and tech writing. Be wary of it in legal writing, as well. Despite its popularity there, the consequences of misinterpreting and/or could be costly.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 18th 2013, 8:35 AM
Comment by: Alexander C. (Germany)
“And/or” is a superfluous construction because there are in English three constructions with a well-defined logical meaning: “and” means both; “or” means one, or the other, or both; and “either ... or” is an exclusive or which means only one of both. I wonder why people sometimes seem to struggle so much with these simple and well-defined concepts, especially in conjunction with negations. Sadly, schools fail to teach children basic mathematical logic, although it can be learnt from a very early age. Just a few simple rules that would help children to use language in a more logical and efficient way, and yet nobody seems to care to teach them.
Monday March 18th 2013, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
It's true, Alexander, that we have those three constructions and that they are options. But language doesn't have to be restricted to just one or two options. There can be many ways to say something, and they can all be valid.
Monday March 18th 2013, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Edward A. (New York, NY, NY)
I use this construction frequently, albeit with some guilt - as I know some people are confounded and/or annoyed by it.

But to me it seems the most elegant (yes elegant, not "hideous" or "monstrous"!) way to present the three choices (A, B or "A and B"). And in most situations, presenting another with choices is not indecisive or weaselly - it's polite and/or generous.

Even in the example, "I'll have cake and/or ice cream, please." The intent is clearly, "I'll have one or the other, no preference, and both it that's ok. You decide."
Monday March 18th 2013, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree, Edward, that and/or is sometimes the most elegant solution. And I can say that my family knows that I always take ice cream with my cake at a birthday party!
Monday March 18th 2013, 2:53 PM
Comment by: RACHEL J. (URBANA, IL)
Layouts is not a verb form.

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Monday March 18th 2013, 5:24 PM
Comment by: Milton C. (Sao Paulo Brazil)
The title of this article might be "And/or: a source of vagueness and/or clarity?"...
Tuesday March 19th 2013, 12:23 AM
Comment by: Jonathon O. (UT)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The problem, Alexander, is that the meaning of "or" is not as well defined as you say. Sometimes "or' has an inclusive meaning, and sometimes it's exclusive. On its own it's ambiguous, but "and/or", though ugly, explicitly allows either meaning.

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