No good substitute for the clumsy ‘and/or’

And/or may not be beautiful, but it usually does the job. It seems we are stuck with it – but perhaps Boolean logical operators offer a solution.

The conjunction and/or can be handy in situations like making plans with friends. I might say “Do you want to get dinner and/or see a movie?” to make it clear that I have the time and inclination to do both, but that if my friend’s schedule allows for only one, that’s fine, too.

Some people think and/or is awkward, and a reader wrote in asking whether English has a single word that can replace it. Many linguists and philosophers of language would argue that yes, there is such a word, and it’s or itself. In this view, the word or works just like the Boolean logical operator OR.  

Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you have probably used these operators – AND, OR, and NOT – because they are the fundamental building blocks of online searches. Let’s say you are doing an online search, and you type in “women AND army.” You will get the history of female soldiers, their roles today, current controversies about women serving, and so on. If you type in “women OR army,” however, you will get an overwhelming number of hits, some about women in general, some about the army in general, and some about women in the army. The operator OR, in other words, works like and/or

The Boolean OR is what linguists and philosophers refer to as inclusive, and so, the argument goes, is the plain old English or. If you find that hard to believe, linguist Geoffrey Pullum offers some examples that might convince you. 

Let’s take the sentence “Emma wanted to win an Oscar or an Olympic medal.” Emma would be happy with an Oscar, happy with a medal, but she sure would be happy with both. 

In everyday life, though, or is often exclusive. When a waiter asks, “Would you like soup or salad with your main course?” you might want both, but the rules of the restaurant say you can choose only one. 

Since we encounter it so often, many English speakers assume that exclusive or is the default. And/or is useful, then, for calling attention to inclusive readings, to make sure that a reader or listener understands that the options are A, B, or both, not simply A or B.

So is there another word for and/or? If you try to use just plain or itself, you will probably confuse a lot of people, unless you are talking to linguists or philosophers. 

You could tack both on the end – “Have water, juice, or both” – which perhaps sounds more elegant but does not replace it, either. 

We are stuck, it seems, with and/or. It may not be beautiful, but it usually does the job. 

Next week we’ll talk about when it causes more confusion than it clears up, and how other languages address the issues of or.

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