Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

Or, not And

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Question from a client:

In the following sentence: “I am not going to discuss X, Y __ Z” what should come between Y and Z? I always thought it should be “and“ but should it be “or“? Or perhaps both are acceptable?

This is a good question, as it touches upon a frequent problem in people’s writing, even among academics. It is also an issue not so much of stylistic editing (because as far as the English is concerned, either and or or is fine), but of logic (as epitomised in programming and electronic logic gates, which are of the type AND, OR, NOT, NAND, NOR, etc.):

1161020-and-or

For example, the sentence:

The time and place of the interviews were chosen by the participants: most of them took place at coffee shops and at the women’s homes.

–means that the interviews with each woman was held both at a coffee shop and at their home. Whereas, what was meant was that it was either-or:

The time and place of the interviews were chosen by the participants: most of them took place at coffee shops or at the women’s homes.

Another example:

In view of its debatable behavioral premises—particularly with regard to the centrality of self-interest—one might expect that PCT would regularly fail to explain and predict governmental decisions and policies

This suggests that PCT fails to explain governmental decisions and policies, but does correctly predict them. I assumed the author meant that it could do neither, so I corrected it to read:

In view of its debatable behavioral premises—particularly with regard to the centrality of self-interest—one might expect that PCT would regularly fail to explain or predict governmental decisions and policies

Another example:

People are more inclined to help others after successfully completing a task, when thinking happy thoughts, and even experiencing sunny weather

That means that people help others only when they have:
a) completed a task, AND
b) think happy thoughts, AND
c) experience sunny weather.

That’s a pretty tough combination to achieve (particularly in this part of the world…). But what you meant (if I’m not mistaken), is that any of those things make people so inclined, so I corrected it to read:

People are more inclined to help others after successfully completing a task, when thinking happy thoughts, or even experiencing sunny weather.

A similar situation occurs in arithmetic, where you can write

a – (b + c)

but if you don’t use parentheses, you must write

a – b – c

—to signify the same thing. The word and is analogous to the plus sign, and or is analogous to the minus sign.

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Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

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