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I am changing a piece of text which current reads:

Payment not deducted

to also include the situation where payments are withheld. The suggested revision of text given to me is

Payment not deducted or withheld

Is this semantically correct? To me it reads:

Payment not deducted and payment not withheld

when what it should really read as is:

Payment not deducted or payment withheld

The ambiguity can be removed by rephrasing as:

Payment withheld or not deducted

but I’m curious to know the rules regarding the word not preceeding an or.

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"Payment not deducted but withheld." –  Peter Shor Mar 25 '13 at 11:14
    
@PeterShor, thanks, however its trying to identify one of two different situations. One where payments are not deducted and one where payments are withheld. –  Chris Knight Mar 25 '13 at 11:20
    
The sentence can be read in two ways: 'Payment {not deducted} or {withheld}.', and 'Payment not {deducted or withheld}.' (using the brackets mathematically, to indicate bound terms).' A comma might be considered sufficient to distinguish the cases: 'Payment not deducted, or withheld.' especially if an 'either' is added: 'Payment either not deducted, or withheld.' But I'd rephrase. 'The rules' sometimes don't seem to work (or exist). –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 25 '13 at 12:25
    
@EdwinAshworth The situation of “payment not {deducted or withheld}” is one place that nor can help, since “payment not deducted nor withheld” is no longer ambiguous. –  tchrist Mar 25 '13 at 13:26
    
See also this question. –  tchrist Mar 25 '13 at 14:28
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1 Answer

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Unlike programming languages, in which the way that logical operations like AND, OR, and NOT occurring in the same sentence are ordered and applied is governed by strict laws of precedence and supplemented by overriding parentheses at need, human language in general and the English language in specific enjoys no such rigorous set of rules recognized by all speakers and writers, wherefore it is necessary to rewrite all such complex and potentially confusing sentences into simple, more direct forms whose singular and wholly unambiguous interpretation is immediately obvious to all who regard it, a clarification whose merits any lawyer you meet will gladly expound upon at such great length that by the end of his exposition, you will have completely forgotten the point of your original question that you first posed to him.

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Wonderful. May I quote you? –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 25 '13 at 12:59
    
@EdwinAshworth Please, be my guest. –  tchrist Mar 25 '13 at 13:01
    
It should be a mandatory preface to all grammars. And legal texts. And political treatises. –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 25 '13 at 13:02
    
Excellent, thanks! You'll perhaps laugh to discover that I'm a software engineer :) –  Chris Knight Mar 25 '13 at 17:09
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