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In the following sentence, the “and/or” seems odd in a case of total negation:

Evidently some people are not able to interpret and/or analyze at that deeper level.

Because the sentence says “are not able to”, total negation would seem to unambiguously require “or”.

In a positive sentence, “and/or” is sometimes used to mean inclusive OR (although perhaps OR alone could suffice), but is there any possibility of ambiguity in total negation?

In other words

Not X and not Y = Not X or Y

Would “not X and/or Y” ever be required? Or does such use merely reflect the increasing proliferation of superfluous “and/or”?

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I don't see any inconsistency in the sentence -- it makes sense as it is. –  Kris Nov 1 '12 at 6:29
@Kris: If you see no inconsistency in ambiguity, then you're projecting, interpolating, and mind-reading. It makes no sense to me because it requires me to choose what it means, not what the writer wants it to mean. –  user21497 Nov 1 '12 at 7:28
What is this “total negation” thing you keep talking about? I have never heard of it before. –  tchrist Nov 1 '12 at 11:43
Think "neither A nor B". That may help. –  user21497 Nov 1 '12 at 14:50
@curious-proofreader: I asked a question here last week. When I looked at the answers, I saw a gray check mark to the left of each one. I clicked on the one I thought was a sufficient answer (and the best answer) to my question. That meant that I had accepted the answer. –  user21497 Nov 1 '12 at 14:52

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The problem with the sentence is the laziness of the typist or computer keyboardista. The (not) and/or barbarism is inherently ambiguous because it means "(not) A, (not) B, or (neither) A and (nor) B".

Never use it for formal writing is my advice. Say instead (in this case):

Evidently some people are unable to interpret, to analyze, or both, at that deeper level.

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No doubt your writers try to blame their barbarisms on their transcriptionists. I say 'baloney'. And/or 'pshaw'. –  StoneyB Nov 1 '12 at 10:07
Most of my writers do their own typing. I say "Both". –  user21497 Nov 1 '12 at 10:17
I did four years as a medical transcriptionist (yes, that's as in 'I did four years at Sing Sing'); you put down what the tissue mechanics dictate and nothing else. No corrections, no interpretations, no nothing. Highly trained professionals (who no longer have the leisure to become highly educated) commit their barbarisms in the capacity of writer. –  StoneyB Nov 1 '12 at 10:25
@:StoneyB: I meant both 'baloney' and 'pshaw'. :-) You were transcribing primarily for native speakers of English, I would guess. All my writers are Taiwanese doctors, professors, and graduate students (native speakers of Mandarin Chinese). Most of them can't afford transcriptionists, not even the cut-rate, off-shored variety, and those who can, can't afford to pay native speakers of English do it. –  user21497 Nov 1 '12 at 10:44
Your to interpret, to analyze, or both, construction looks uglier to me and requires more thought. Perhaps it's just a matter of the reader's familiarity with the logic of ¬(a⋀b) –  Useless Nov 1 '12 at 15:45

Evidently some people are not able to interpret and/or analyze at that deeper level.

Just to add to further explore the rich tapestry that is English :-) ...

In at least some cases the meaning might be intended to be something like

" Evidently, at that deeper level,
people in group A are not able to analyse and
people in group B are not able to interpret and
people in group c are not able either to interpret or analyse."

While in this example this meaning is less likely, the question was about the use of "total negation" in conjunction with and/or, and there are some situations where the above interpretation would be by far the most likely one.

  • "Twenty percent of the candidates were unable to return gunfire after the extended timed cross-country exercise, having lost or damaged their weapon and/or lost their ammunition. Those who achieved both were instantly dismissed from the course."

  • "You are liable to fail if you do not complete section A and/or section C. In fact, if you fail to complete both then failing is a near certainty."

In the above examples the second sentence is included to emphasise that

  • weapon, ammunition, weapon and ammunition


  • A, C, A+C

are intended possibilities.

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