Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Do and and or have any particular precedence as they do in programming languages?

What does the following sentence mean?

Will it be cold and rain or snow today?

  • Will it (be cold and rain) or snow today?
  • Will it (be cold) and (rain or snow) today?

Is the sentence completely ambiguous?

share|improve this question
    
Methinks it's ambiguous without commas, but I don't have a good reason for this. –  KitFox Jun 30 '11 at 15:21
    
When close-reading it looks ambiguous, but, idiomatically, I would say it's probably not as ambiguous as we might think. I suspect most native listeners would understand the second meaning because "rain" and "snow" have more in common with one another than either one has with "cold", so there's a natural tendency to think the phrase means "cold and (rain or snow)". Also, I suspect that subtle auditory cues in the way that the speaker says the phrase would help the listener parse it. –  Viktor Haag Jun 30 '11 at 15:32
    
"and" and "or" have the same precedence in programming languages. Are you referring to the practice of implementing them from left to right? –  MrHen Jun 30 '11 at 18:58
    
Your specific example is not ambiguous only because "be rain" and "be snow" aren't grammatical, so the only meaningful grouping is (be cold) and (rain or snow). But I understand that this example is a proxy for something else that may or may not share those properties, which is why this is a comment and not an answer. –  Monica Cellio Jun 30 '11 at 19:16
    
@Monica, sorry, misplaced the parenthesis. Updated question. –  aioobe Jun 30 '11 at 20:40

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

There is no "operator precedence" notion in English regarding "and" and "or": those are programming or mathematical concepts.

To make the precedence explicit (i.e. to avoid ambiguity) you would make one group a parenthetical, usually with commas, extra words, or a change in word order:

It will be cold and rainy today, or it will snow.

It will be cold today, with rain or snow.

And so on.

share|improve this answer
    
This is a technical article (which obviously discusses something else than rain and snow :-) so those exact "workarounds" don't work well in my situation. I currently have something corresponding to "Will it be cold and (a) rain, or (b) snow today?" Does it seem ok to you? It's meant to emphasize the "enumeration" of options in the or part. –  aioobe Jun 30 '11 at 15:41
2  
@aiobe: The enumeration clears up the ambiguity. –  Robusto Jun 30 '11 at 15:47
1  
Another option is to go for a slight repetition: "Will it be cold and rain today, or will it be cold and snow?" (I find this easier to parse than the enumeration.) –  grautur Jun 30 '11 at 16:23
    
@grautur: I don't see the point of rephrasing to include "will it be cold and snow". It's hardly likely the questioner would be wondering if it might snow without being cold. –  FumbleFingers Jun 30 '11 at 20:38
    
@Fumble: Oh, I agree. I was just rewording aioobe's enumeration in the comment, ignoring the actual words. –  grautur Jun 30 '11 at 21:00

It is ambiguous. In order to stay as close as possible to the original formulation, how about this solution:

Will it be cold and also rain or snow today?

The "also" acts sort of as an indicator of how to parse the and/or combo.

share|improve this answer

I don't really think the question is ambiguous. The most likely real-world context is that the questioner assumes it's going to be cold tomorrow, and that there will be precipitation. He's just asking if that precipitation will be rain or snow.

If we're to admit of any other interpretations (i.e. - it's ambiguous), we must accept that there are several questions being asked at once...

1) Will it be cold?

2) Will there be precipitation?

3) If it's cold and there is preciptation, will it fall as rain or snow?

Note that in my straightforward interpretation, it's always possible to disagree with either of the assumptions, by answering negatively to either of the questions (1) or (2) above, even though they've not been explicitly asked.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.