The Grammarphobia Blog

Conjunctionitis

Q: I find the use of “and/or” annoying, but I’m not always certain which conjunction to use. Examples: “Hunting and fishing are prohibited” versus “Hunting or fishing is prohibited.” The first example suggests that someone can hunt or fish, but not do both. The second makes the reader guess which activity (hunting or fishing) is prohibited.

A: We don’t like the clunky “and/or” construction either. In a posting a few years ago, we wrote that there’s usually a more graceful way of saying this, even if it means adding an extra word or two.

Of the following two sentences, we wrote, we’d go with No. 2:

(1) “Would you like mustard and/or relish on your hot dog?”

(2) “Would you like mustard, relish, or both on your hot dog?”

To be fair, this use of “and/or” has a history. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a formula denoting that the items joined by it can be taken either together or as alternatives.”

The OED’s first citation is from an 1855 report in a law journal about “a full and complete cargo of sugar, molasses,  and/or other lawful produce.”

Although the usage is often seen in legal, academic, and bureaucratic writing, some of the OED citations touch on down-to-earth subjects.

The most recent one, for example, is from Nigella Lawson’s book How to Eat (1999): “Grate in a cooking apple and or a quince.” (The 2002 edition has “Grate into it a cooking apple or a quince.”)

Getting back to your question, one can think too much about this “and/or” business.

Yes, your first example (“Hunting and fishing are prohibited”) could in theory be read to mean it’s OK to hunt or fish, but not to do both. However, we can’t imagine anyone actually reading it that way.

As for your second example (“Hunting or fishing is prohibited”), it clearly means that either one—hunting or fishing—is prohibited. In other words, you can’t hunt, or fish, or hunt and fish.

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