Thoughts on redundancy aside, using or in this phrase seems wrong to me. Should it not be and? My reasoning is this: There are only two possibilities on the actions concerning X -- either X will be done, or it will not be done. This is binary logic. Using and would indicate that I may do X, and I may not do X -- all the possibilities are covered -- whereas using or lends the implication that there are some other possibilities for your actions concerning X (when there are none).

I know mathematical logic doesn't map perfectly to natural language, but and seems much more correct to me. So why is the expression used with or?

  • Just as a note: in binary logic or is inclusive. In language, it's exclusive. – Jim Mack Jul 12 '15 at 0:17
  • You don't give us enough context. Your fragment is ambiguous. A sample sentence would help. Remember that "may" can indicate "perhaps" or it can indicate permission. – chasly - supports Monica Jul 12 '15 at 0:58
  • The phrase "may not" is ambigious. It can mean "cannot" (due to either prohibition or inability), but it can also indicate that there's a possibility that the thing won't happen. I suspect you have made a false paradox based on confusing these different meanings. – Karasinsky Jul 12 '15 at 2:00

I'm not sure where to look for an analysis of this. Perhaps I can just use an "either/or" state of affairs in a conversational context?

You may say you're sorry or you may not. I couldn't care less either way.

Here, the alternatives indicate the two possible courses of action (two narratives, if you like) which lead to "...either way". The first option (saying sorry) shows contrition. The second (not saying sorry) is intransigent. So not saying sorry in this case is as conscious an action as saying it.

To say "You may say you're sorry. I couldn't care less" is to miss out the "action" of not saying sorry and the speaker's response to it. (And the statement can hardly continue with "either way"). So there's no redundancy here.

Further, to say "You may say you're sorry and you may not say you're sorry" is to insist on a paradoxical state for the person being talked to. The two actions are incompatible.

This is an artificial situation I've posed, and I can't think through all possibilities of using "may or may not", but I think in everyday usage the phrase can be used in consideration of two possible contrasting but equally valid states, with the result being the same in either case.

The question may or may not be, but probably is, a duplicate of this one, with more answers and points of view.


No, it is not logically incorrect. Logic concerns inference, and you have not mentioned any inference, so your example phrases are neither logically correct nor logically incorrect.

Aside from that, the law of the excluded middle does not imply that either I may do X or I may not do X, since the second of these is not the negation of the first.

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