07 April 2019

Professional Tips, and/or
Exceptions to the Rules

Often I turn to mystery writers for professional tips, but my friend, editor, writer, teacher Sharon sent me a Paris Review article by Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. He presents a sensible, literate, and wonderfully enjoyable defense of bending, even breaking the rules.

The Village Explainer

The ‘4 Cs’ represent the real axioms of good writing, convention, consensus, clarity, comprehension. I suspect even these rules can be carefully broken, but not with impunity. Dreyer uses an example of ‘not only x but y’, but he didn’t extend the explanation to its conclusion. I’d back into one more in his C list, logiC.

I just single-handedly Crumpled my Credibility, but writing requires a certain logic, not merely plot, not merely sensible characterization, but how we string words together. Logic, for example, might include arguments for the Oxford comma, that clarity demands all items in a list should be separated by commas.

To Be and Not to Be (Schrödinger’s Last Meow)

Writers understand the difference between ‘and’ and ‘or’, but is ‘and/or’ a legitimate construction? One of my esteemed colleagues chided me for using it in an email, arguing it’s redundant. Use one or the other, he said, preferably ‘or’. He pointed out the persistent bugger has been criticized for at least a century. Even Strunk and White weighed in The Elements of Style. The manual says, ‘and/or’ “damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity.”

What does the phrase “Abel, Baker and/or Charlie” mean in a contract or a bank check? My favorite YouTube attorney, Steve Lehto, recorded a lecture on the topic. Courts have had to decide the meaning of ‘and/or’ in legal cases, where they usually, but not always, arrive at a consensus of any or all.

While the awkward phrase should never appear in professional writing, I disagree ‘and/or’ can simply be replaced with one conjunction or the other. As I prepared this article, I looked up the combination to see if anyone else felt similarly. To my surprise, I came across a number of articles including a Wikipedia entry.

In a case of being wrong but right, I discovered ‘and/or’ can’t be simply reduced to ‘and’ or ‘or’. This has led grammarians to propose using the most appropriate of three constructs:
  • x or y or both
  • either x or y
  • x and any y
While the first has its proponents, especially amid legal circles, Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, argues the third example can have its uses. She contends the first recommendation is awkward, through perhaps not quite as awful as the original ‘and/or’ phrase. She further suggests that if one insists upon using ‘and/or’, then treat the sentence as if the subject is plural, not singular.

Meanwhile, Back at the ProVerbial Ranch…

Check out Dreyer’s Non-Rules. Students have read others discussing the topics before, all basic rules, but not with this light-touch analysis you shouldn’t miss.
  1. Never Begin a Sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’
  2. Never Split an Infinitive
  3. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition
As Dreyer points out, there’s more than meets the eye.

Rules, love ’em, hate ’em. What are your (dis)favorites?

TidByts for Grammar Geeks

[TL;DR] But wait! There’s more!

De Morgan’s laws codify logic rules for conjunctions: ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘nor’, and the adverb ‘not’.

These same conjunctions and ‘not’ make programming languages possible. A few languages (and Excel!) and nearly all computers feature ‘xor’, an ‘exclusive or’, meaning either x or y but not both. Computer circuitry usually depend on ‘nor’ or often ‘nand’, not-and, meaning not x and y.

I mention this because human language constructs can be coded in the binary of computers, and vice versa. You might be surprised the same English (or French or Spanish) grammar rules apply to computer logic. Try this convoluted example:
A census shows that in every house in Lake Wobegon, all the women are strong and all the men are good-looking, or, all the children are above average and not any of their pets are dysfunctional.
In other words, one way or another, homes are blessed with perfect parents or great children and dogs, and possibly both. Applying De Morgan's laws, if we replace all the affirmatives with negatives, all the negatives with positives, and change all the ‘and’s to ‘or’s and the ‘or’s to ‘and’s, we learn this:
A census does not show in every house in Lake Wobegon, not all the women are strong or not all the men are good-looking, and, not all children are above average or all their pets are dysfunctional.
To help clarify the inverse of the second proposition matches the first, it may help to split the latter into two sentences:
A census doesn’t show that in every house in Lake Wobegon, not all the women are strong or not all the men are good-looking. And, the census doesn’t show not all children are above average or all their pets are dysfunctional.
Chew on that, S.S. van Dine!

There are rules, and then there are rules.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Leigh, is Moses holding up the Ten Commandments of Grammar in that pic? No wonder the crowd is so agitated.

  3. Leigh --

    Great minds DO think alike . . .

    I especially like the TidByts. Good column!

  4. Paul, I'm sure that's what Moses is holding up, Strunk and White cast on easy-to-chew tablets.

    John, we agree! I like that your article contains much more useful detail.

  5. How about eating ice cream and/or cake for dessert?

  6. Elizabeth, I'd hazard the and/or peeps would opt for the first option: ice cream, cake, or both. However, 'both' makes the most sense because who would eat just cake if ice cream were around?

  7. Thanks for this helpful post, Leigh.

    Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl site is one of my favorite “quick and dirty” freebie spots. I usually Google key words (grammar girl which vs. that; grammar girl comma use; or whatever. Almost always get a direct hit and a quick shot of useful guidance.

  8. Leigh, I like and/or greatly appreciate these writing tips! And what fun is breaking the rules if you don't know the rules?

  9. Peter, with a little luck, she might spot your comment. I hadn't tried the specificity of narrowing the site to hers, but that's a great idea.

    Lawrence, (laughing) That's oh, so true.


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