We are ordinary Russian folks playing an English board game and came across this sentence:

You may splay your green or blue cards left.

We expected that it meant you must choose only one card stack, but later found another card with the appended sentence:

Draw a card for every color you have splayed left.

which contradicts the first sentence if "forcing" was intended because it has the words "for every" (not one).

Does "or" mean choosing only one clause in English or does it allow to choose both?

  • possible duplicate of Alternatives to "and/or"? Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 23:21
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    Your second sentence (Draw a card for every color you have splayed left) sounds like it was not written by a native English speaker (it should be draw a card for every remaining color you have splayed), so I would choose the meaning compatible with the second sentence. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 23:21
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    Not to mention the use of splay- a word that I have never encountered in the context of card/board games.
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 23:32
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    @Jim the review at meoplesmagazine.com/2011/05/08/innovation considers the approach to splaying to be a novel feature, so that you haven't encountered it is a good thing for them ;) My guess here is that at that point you may indeed splay green or blue, but not both, at that point, but the splays are left splayed. The question might be better asked at boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/63888/innovation - English or is ambiguous in this manner, so ask the board game nerds rather than the English nerds ;)
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 23:54
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    @FumbleFingers similarly, I've voted as too localised, but the second link I gave is about the very game in question. Hopefully they can get help there.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 1:35

3 Answers 3


In general, "or" is somewhat ambiguous between whether it does or does not include both. In this particular construction---"You may do X or Y"---the tendency is to mean the exclusive or---one or the other, but not both. (But this isn't entirely clear; as these are supposed to be rules for a game, it would probably help to be clearer.)

The rule is unambiguously permissive: it says you may splay them, but doesn't force you do. (If it intended to say that you had to splay exactly one color, a typical phrasing would have been "You must splay either your green or blue cards left.")

It appears you're discussing the game Innovation. (It would, by the way, have been helpful to include that information in the first place.) In that context, I don't know why you think there's any conflict between the two cards. There are lots of cards that cause you to splay different colors; the card you mentioned splays one color, and other cards may splay other colors, and then a later card counts how many colors you've splayed.

From what I remember of the game, I believe in this case the rule is exclusive---color or the other. But you'd be better off checking on forums associated to board games, or that specific game.


Is the word "or" exclusive or nonexclusive when used between words.

I believe it all depends on the context; The inflection of the speaker, the words written before and after, even the cultural differences, speech patterns, language and writing of the author, etc.

Here are three examples (with a few others mixed in):

  1. "Kids, I bought a huge steak. For the side which do do prefer? We have corn, beans or carrots?" -this "or" would be exclusive. Corn or beans or carrots. Not two or all three of them.

    Now if I'd heard or seen this question written as below:

    (The word "or" in this sentence, non-exclusive. If I'd heard "and/or" seen it written. Both are choices.)

  2. "Hey, kids, I'm making dinner? I bought a huge steak. We have corn, beans or carrots? Hello?! There you are! You guys are really silly. Now please stop playing for 2 seconds and tell me what you all want to eat with your steak"

It's a little more ambiguous but I belive it is not non-exclusive. It is not saying you have the choice between corn or beans or carrots, but a choice between having one,the other or even all 3. Seems like mommy doesn't care which, she just wants to know what they want as quickly as possible. But I'm not sure she'd be very happy if they said they wanted "all three" and I'm pretty sure she'd tell them to pick two at most.

Now if the question was asked like this:

  1. Kids, get down here NOW! I'm making steak for dinner. We have corn, beans or carrots? What do you want?

From the way it's written: it's curt, the sentences are short but not sweet and mommy "sounds" harangued. This scene conveys a different emotion than the last one. In this setting, whether written or spoken (non-exclusive "or" again) the word "or" is exclusive. These kids need to pick one of the three. And if it were me, I'd choose fast "cause momma don't sound happy!" :)

So as you can see, from my experience with the spoken and written word, a lot of our meaning comes from our inflection, the words spoken or written before or after (non-exclusive) and depends a lot on the emotion conveyed by the person(s) saying or writing them.

An important lesson for writers, public speaker's and even interpreters (non-exclusive) to learn.


English is ambiguous when it comes to the use of "or." "Either/or" (for example, "Either take your turn or quit the game") implies one or the other but not both, but "or" by itself can mean either exclusive or non-exclusive. In this case it seems clear that it is not exclusive: use blue, or green, or both.

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    No, it's not clear at all. There could be other instructions "You may splay your red or yellow cards left," "Splay your indigo cards left," or anything other combination. The second sentence in the question would indicate to me that there was at least one choice of colour and probably more than one. Thus in fact this or is indeed exclusive.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 0:24
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    Standard English usage usually prefers the exclusive case, but it is not always so, and thus it is ambiguous. It was not from the initial sentence that it was clear -- that would deny the meaning of ambiguous -- but from the whole context, including the additional instructions.
    – shipr
    Commented Jan 27, 2013 at 1:27

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