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I had taken a multiple choice business test the other day and the question was the following:

1. In Microsoft Word, the scissors function would be used to:

A) Cut or select certain information

B) Bolding a word

C) None of the above

I believe that the "or" in answer A) signifies that the scissor function is capable of both a cut and a select operation, whereas my teacher believes that it means one or the other and since the scissor function is capable of a cut operation A should be the correct answer.

I chose C) "None of the above" and I am considering escalating my complaint to student services.

Some relevant information may include that the Microsoft office being used by this class is of 2003. It is also a grade 9 class.

*Below is a link to the follow up of what happened at student services incase anyone is interested: HERE

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It is usually expected in a multiple choice question that each answer will be a distinct possibility or set of possibilities, and generally an answer consisting of "this OR that" where one is correct and the other isn't is considered poor question form.

If I said to someone in conversation:

The cut tool in Microsoft Word can cut or select certain information.

They would, quite understandably, assume that the cut tool is capable of doing both of those things. Applying the same statement structure in the context of a test question doesn't change its implied meaning. When I say this, what I am actually saying is

The cut tool in Microsoft Word can either be used to cut certain information or select certain information. It is capable of both of these things and you can choose which one to use it for.

When you are listing capabilities of a function, using the word "or" is taken to mean that the user can choose which capability it has, but that the function can perform all of the capabilities listed. If this weren't the case, why would that capability even be included in the list in the first place? The question was poorly-written and I think you should escalate to student services.

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    Agreed. The legalistic explanation that a choice worded as (TRUE or FALSE) should evaluate as TRUE ignores the fact that this isn't a computer program or a logic class. The teacher is either not a native English speaker, or is trying to cover for a bad question. – Jeremy Nottingham Mar 22 '16 at 16:20
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    This sounds like the correct answer to me, I have not marked it as such because I will talk to student services first, and if they are to side with me, I will mark your answer as correct, I will post back with results after school today, unless they are "busy" in which case I will receive an appointment, 3-20 days from today . Stay tuned for updates and thanks for the answers guys. Furthermore as my school board always says, "your answer is not valid unless a teacher says it is" – Mohammad Ali Mar 22 '16 at 16:23
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    @jeremy he is defiantly trying to cover for a bad question, he knows if I win the student services claim, that I may be eligible for financial compensation, and he would no longer receive any salary bonuses for the year, keep. In mind he was born in North America, with English speaking parents. – Mohammad Ali Mar 22 '16 at 16:27
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    I agree, the question is very poorly worded and should be voided. But "he would no longer receive any salary bonuses for the year"?? Why? That seems insane. As does you getting financial compensation. Why? It's just a test in a high school class. Since when are teachers expected to be perfect? Also, I find it odd that you blanked out answer B, refuse to tell us what it said, and so I wonder even more what it said. – Matthew Elvey Mar 22 '16 at 19:54
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    @Crowley note that my second sentence is saying what the format of the question is implying, not what I think it should be. I know it doesn't make sense to interpret it that way but that's what's being implied by the wording. – John Clifford Mar 22 '16 at 20:08
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John Clifford's answer is clear, well-written and correct. I expand:

First, let's establish consensus where it exists: In Microsoft Word, the scissors function would not be used to select certain information. However, it would be better to express the core idea more clearly, like this: "In Microsoft Word, the scissors tool is not to be used to select text." On this, surely, we have consensus.

In order to correctly answer the question, the most important thing to understand is that this is a situation where the rules of English rule, not the rules of boolean logic. Here are two arguments:

Imagine there's a statute that says: "A valid license entitles you to drive a car or small truck." Imagine you get a license, and get pulled over and issued a ticket anyway. You're told that you only have one license and were seen driving both a car and a small truck. That would be messed up! Because even though the word or is used, the only sensible interpretation of the or in the statute is that it means both can be driven.

In English, this sentence is false: "In Microsoft Word, the scissors function can be used to cut or select certain information." It's false because the or in the sentence means both can be done, and that's not the case. It cannot be interpreted in a boolean/CompSci/math logic sense because "select certain information" is not a predicate.

In boolean logic, this sentence is true: "In Microsoft Word, the scissors function can be used to select certain information or in Microsoft Word, the scissors function can be used to cut certain information." It's true because the or in this sentence means it's asserted that at least one or the other predicate is true, and that is the case, because the first predicate is true. But that's not the sentence that was in the test question!

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  • Re: follow up link: Wow. :-( Please name and shame the relevant B-school. Apropos the follow-up link you added later: Their response is so wrong in so many ways! I guess they're teaching you that life isn't fair? Not that that isn't a valuable lesson, but it's one schools should not be teaching like this! – Matthew Elvey Oct 5 '18 at 17:50
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I agree that it's a poorly worded question and you have a point that the correct answer is open to interpretation. However, in my education experience, the correct thing to do in when answering such a question is to ask for clarification before answering, mainly because you could make up your interpretation for the answer after learning that your choice is wrong. This is admittedly difficult to do in some classrooms which have a strict no talking policy during exams.

There is a subtler meaning at play than the distinction you draw. Answer A could be saying that "cut or select" are different words for the same operation. The most common computer terms for the operation is usually Select text → Cut operation → move cursor to desired insertion point → Paste operation (which makes this technically incorrect, in my opinion). However, another way of saying it is that after you have used the Cut operation, you have selected which text/content you are going to paste.

Because of this distinction and the interpretation your teacher regards as the correct one, answer A is definitely the most correct answer. Consider that "C None of the above" negates answers A and B and turn it into a statement in the form of the original question; you are then saying:

In Microsoft Word, the scissors function would not be used to cut certain information, select certain information, or bolding a word.

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    I was not offered any clarification during the testing period, but was offered it before I had received the text, because he told us before the test that we(the students) were only allowed to ask what he(the teacher) was compelled to respond to by school policy, so this was not an option for me. Furthermore I agree that answer c does negate answers a and b but I believe that this is valid because I believe that answer a indicates that the cut tool is capable of both selecting and cutting text which is incorrect and that I am not negating both parts of option A separately. – Mohammad Ali Mar 22 '16 at 16:19
  • I have no idea how you have recived 2 up it's at the time of writing as cut and select are not "2 words for the same operation" and I have never heard of anyone using the terms cut and select interchangeably as they represent 2 completely different operations. One highlights text and the other removes said text and places it into the clipboard. – Mohammad Ali Mar 22 '16 at 21:03
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    I agree that it's technically incorrect. If you've never heard it before, you have the blessing of talking exclusively to people whose computer literacy is far higher than average; I would go so far to say that the people who know the exact technical difference between "select" and "cut" have no business taking a 9th grade class on Microsoft Word. I agree that it's a poorly worded question and answer, but there is enough ambiguity and your instructor and school seem authoritarian enough that I doubt you'll have any success arguing the point further. Sorry. – Patrick M Mar 22 '16 at 21:38
  • it was a mandatory course, there was no way that I could avoid it, I'm taking grade 11 computer science next year though. And I'm unsure as to what you mean by "blessing of talking to people with computer literacy skills that are above average? – Mohammad Ali Mar 22 '16 at 21:43
  • By that part, I meant that computer illiterate people, which you clearly are not, often confuse computer terms that are similar. Or even terms that have nothing to do with each other, as you say cut and select are. I agree with your interpretation, but selecting is at least related to cutting, even a prerequisite to a successful cut operation. Your school administration sounds very inflexible and I doubt you will be able to convince them to alter your grade for this answer, regardless of the strength of your interpretation, which you have to admit is less than iron-clad. – Patrick M Mar 23 '16 at 0:57
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I read answer A as saying that using the scissors icon in Microsoft Word allows me, the user, to either cut certain information or select certain information, and that which of these two things I do depends on some choice I make, whether it be because a menu appears after using the icon, or because it performs one function in one context, and the other function in another context.

But in reality, there exists no circumstance in which the scissors icon can be used to select information. Because I do not have the choice to "cut or select" certain information, but in fact can only cut certain information with the scissors icon, answer A cannot be the correct answer.

This is not the same as the logical "inclusive OR" interpretation:

A is true  if x is true  and y is false  <-- (A is true)
A is true  if x is false and y is true
A is true  if x is true  and y is true
A is false if x is false and y is false

Nor is it the same as the logical "exclusive OR" interpretation:

A is true  if x is true  and y is false  <-- (A is true)
A is true  if x is false and y is true
A is false if x is true  and y is true
A is false if x is false and y is false

Because there are at least 3 possible interpretations of answer A, and because they give differing results on the correctness or incorrectness of answer A, I would present to student services that this question is invalid, and that one of the following remedies should be taken:

  • Every student taking this test gets this question marked right.
  • Every student taking this test who answered either A or C gets this question marked right.
  • This question is removed from the test's scoring entirely (e.g. if the test had 5 questions, each of the remaining 4 questions would comprise 25% of the test score instead of 20%).
  • The teacher is compelled by school policy to explain how to properly interpret the use of "OR" in a multiple choice answer. He must also ensure that every test containing a multiple choice answer that uses "OR" matches the explanation he has previously given in terms of which choice(s) are considered correct, or in the event that a test contains an multiple choice answer that uses "OR" in a manner that contradicts his previous explanation of "OR" usage, he is compelled to explain how the usage of "OR" in that particular test differs from his previously-provided interpretation. (He may simply opt to expunge all instances of "OR" from all other tests he administers.)

However...
Depending on how significantly this answer affects your overall grade for the test, the semester, and the class overall, it may not be worthwhile to pursue it.

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  • I do not know what school policy you are referencing to, but my school board doesn't mandate that anything is ever explained to me, they take the concept of his "right to remain silent" rather literally as they are trying to avoid digging themselves into a hole, furthermore the results of my meeting with student services will be posted below, when I get home, also this test is worth approx 15% of my overall mark, although the school refuses to disclose the weight of the test before the end of the year. – Mohammad Ali Mar 22 '16 at 22:45
  • In your comment on Patrick M's answer, you said "we(the students) were only allowed to ask what he(the teacher) was compelled to respond to by school policy". I'm saying that I would demand that the school add an explanation of how to properly interpret "OR" inside a multiple-choice question like this one, where one of the two things is wrong to the things that this policy compels the teacher to answer. – Dan Henderson Mar 22 '16 at 22:52
  • Also, the last bullet point in my list of remedies is, honestly, only included as a bit of absurdity, but basically saying "If you aren't willing to do any of the first three, fairly reasonable remedies, which may alter scores based on this poorly-written question, then you'll have to do this fourth, fairly unreasonable remedy, which doesn't involve altering test scores." – Dan Henderson Mar 22 '16 at 22:55
  • And it would probably only work if you're a really good debater, like I am. I win as many arguments by simply exhausting the other party's willingness to continue the debate as I do by actually proving them wrong. – Dan Henderson Mar 22 '16 at 22:57
  • The teacher is not going to give up, because there is money (his annual bonus) on the line. – stannius Mar 22 '16 at 23:49
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John Clifford, Matthew Elvey and Dan Henderson all clearly and correctly answer your question, so rather than expand on their explanations, may I offer a meta-answer?

Pop the phrase "cut or select" into your favourite search engine - not only will you find nothing of relevance, but you'll also find your own question high up in the results.

This would usually indicate that (i) "cut or select" is not a commonly used phrase, and (ii) it's not even a commonly misused phrase.

I was quite surprised that it didn't get any hits in relation to MS Word - I was hoping it might have thrown up a single incorrect text that may have been the source of the question!

So, while this is a forum for English language and usage, I hope you won't mind me suggesting that rather than trying to argue nitty-gritty semantics with your school board, you may have more luck simply pointing out that the sentence …

"In Microsoft Word, the scissors function would be used to cut or select certain information"

… is simply not true, and surely no-one would argue that it is.

Good luck!

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The problem here is that in LANGUAGE usage, there are TWO kinds of "or"...the inclusive or, and the exclusive or.

Inclusive: "dogs, or cats, or fish, or horses are kept as pets."

Exclusive: "dogs or cats or fish or horses have gills."

The difference should be clear from the example, and your instructor wrote his question in the form of an inclusive or, though it is actually an exclusive or.

A duck can walk or fly or swim. A duck in the water can walk, or fly, or swim. Scissors can cut. Scissors can cut or select.

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  • Is their like a secret system as to identify whether or not the question is inclusive or exclusive? Like can I start a poll on stack exchange to see how other people seem to be interpreting this question. – Mohammad Ali Mar 22 '16 at 21:09
  • You have to find it out from the context. Sometimes it is obvious; sometimes it is not. – Crowley Mar 23 '16 at 10:29
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I have same problem with or regardless to the language. Because there are different points of view on the context.

  1. "He wore black or brown shoes." Which implies that one of the options is true but not both. In many questions one face one-or-another options as well.
  2. "Number a is greater or equal to zero." which is mathematical construct and follows mathematical (Boolean) logic and is true when at least one of the conditions conditions is true and is false when both are false.
  3. "You can go there on bike or by bus" Which implies that you can use both bike and bus and you are allowed to choose one of them.

To be sure what meaning of or is understood I use and/or when I want to use 'mathematical or' (true for at least one true) and either - or for 'mathematical exclusive or' (true for only one true). I use both - and to emphasize that really both conditions must be true.

To your test question: it is bad formulated; may be it is a tricky question. The answer C be read as follows:

In Microsoft Word, the scissors function would not be used to neither cut ,neither select information, neither option B.

Which is, since scissors cut the selected block, incorrect.

But it can also be read, as mentioned above, as follows:

In Microsoft Word, the scissors function is capable of doing both cutting and selecting depending on users will or the context.

Which is, since scissors cannot select, incorrect.

If you can choose the point of view you cannot be wrong (right) regardless whether one of A or B is marked! They are both right and wrong as Schrödinger's cat is dead and alive.

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You are correct. If I were holding a playing card in my hand that was a 5 of clubs, then the statement "This is a spade or a club." would be true. The same goes with the example below, "This is a website or a dog." is also true because this is a website. The logical opposite of 'or' is 'and', this is what the professor is confused with.\

Edit: Nevermind, I was confused. The logical or supports the teachers claims, however it is a poorly worded multiple choice question, as the two options should be two different possible answers.

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    It seems your argument supports the professor. – GEdgar Mar 22 '16 at 22:08
  • Edited to address that. Yes, the professor was correct as the logical "or" supports his claims, however as others have commented it is a poorly worded question. – Chris Mar 22 '16 at 22:22

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