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?

  • Methinks it's ambiguous without commas, but I don't have a good reason for this.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jun 30, 2011 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. Commented Jun 30, 2011 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
    Commented Jun 30, 2011 at 18:58
  • 1
    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. Commented Jun 30, 2011 at 19:16
  • @Monica, sorry, misplaced the parenthesis. Updated question.
    – aioobe
    Commented Jun 30, 2011 at 20:40

3 Answers 3


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.

  • 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
    Commented Jun 30, 2011 at 15:41
  • 2
    @aiobe: The enumeration clears up the ambiguity.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jun 30, 2011 at 15:47
  • 2
    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
    Commented Jun 30, 2011 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. Commented Jun 30, 2011 at 20:38
  • 1
    @Fumble: Oh, I agree. I was just rewording aioobe's enumeration in the comment, ignoring the actual words.
    – grautur
    Commented Jun 30, 2011 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.


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.

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