Friday, March 18, 2005

Belt and/or suspenders (both optional)

This week I've been arguing with my bosses about or. It seems that as a linguist, I am indoctrinated into believing that English or is inclusive while as careful users of the language they are certain that or is exclusive.

This all started because I prescriptively pronounced against the use of and/or. To me it's just clumsy and easily misused. And since or is inclusive anyway, who needs it? I won't go into the details of the argument here. Let's just say it came down to an agreement to disagree.

Anyway, one of the arguments I tried out on them was that no language has a lexical distinction between inclusive or and exlusive or. One of my bosses immediately responded, "English does, or is exclusive and and/or is inclusive." My response was that and/or isn't a word. We left it at that.But I thought to myself, I bet and/or ends up being just like or by taking on an exclusive meaning.

I was vindicated last night. I was sitting on the can reading What to Expect When You're Expecting (It's good bathroom literature!) when I came across the following in a recipe for oatmeal cookies on p. 94:

"add ground cinnamon and/or salt to taste (both optional) when you add the milk."



g said...

if i understand this concept correctly, in boolean searching the "or" is inclusive. it means "one, the other, or both." "or neither" is always implied in database searching. if you search "dogs or cats" it's going to give you everything it has on dogs plus everything it has on cats. if you search "dogs and cats" you're going to get only the results that include both dogs and cats.

boredoom said...

I think the example with the milk brings up another point. In some cases, "or" means "A or B other, or neither," adding to its possible meanings "A or B, but not both," and "A or B, or both."

Now that I realize it, it's a horrible, shifty little word.

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