I have recently come across this (to me) strange usage of 'or':

Given an option to do some action X with a consequence Y

Do I want to do X or do I want to risk Y?

Specifically, this appears in this article as

do I want the glass of wine or do I want to raise my own risk of breast cancer?

I believe this is simply a mistake and the right connector to be used here should've been and, but it has been suggested to me that this usage is correct. Is that actually the case?

Regarding the duplicate flag

This does not appear to be the same question as the one this is marked a duplicate of. I know about inclusive and exclusive or. This doesn't appear to be either an inclusive or an exclusive or though (if it was, I'd be interested to hear how, however). Note that the statement neither means X or Y or both, nor does it mean X or Y and not both, it means if X then Y.


Here or is being used metalinguistically (it is not used to indicate that either of the two propositions [drinking wine or increasing risk] are true), but rather to contrast two ways of phrasing. The doctor is instead suggesting that you could describe the action that you are contemplating two different ways. It could be paraphrased as:

Would you describe the action you're contemplating as [drinking a glass of wine] or as [increasing your risk of breast cancer] (both descriptions could apply).

A related phenomenon is metalinguistic negation. For example, an athlete wins a race with a world record time. The proposition "She won the race" is true, but in that context someone could say, with the right intonation:

She didn't win the race. She broke a world record!

Google "metalinguistic coordination" or "metalinguistic negation" for more info.

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  • Still seems like an odd construct to me, but I guess I don't really get to pick how the language works. – Cubic Jul 23 '16 at 23:31
  • That's it. Great answer. – Centaurus Jul 23 '16 at 23:50
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    I would find the "She didn't win the race. She broke a world record!" construct to be pretty confusing, and I'm a lifelong native English speaker. I know there's an implied "just" but it doesn't come across, at least not with that set of punctuation. – fluffy Jul 24 '16 at 1:35
  • This answer doesn't explain why Davies went on to say "I take a decision each time I have a glass". I believe the OP's suspicion is correct and Davies misspoke. I don't like having to downvote your answer, but I'm convinced it's wrong. – Kef Schecter Jul 24 '16 at 1:41
  • @KefSchecter my answer is right. She starts by saying "Do as I do when I reach for a glass of wine. Think." instructing you to consider that there are two ways to think about what you are about to do. The "decision" in the following sentence is her choice of how she frames the action. – user31341 Jul 24 '16 at 2:42

I'm nearly 100% certain she misspoke. The other two answers given here (by jlovegren and V0ight) do not make sense to me in this context; these interpretations do not seem to fit the intention. Moreover, the "or" is clearly not inclusive, because she follows it with "I take a decision each time I have a glass."

The intention is clearly along the lines of, "Will drinking this glass of wine be worth the increased risk of cancer?" -- hence the decision. The question she should have asked would be something like, "Do I want the glass of wine or do I want to avoid raising my own risk of breast cancer?"

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  • Yes, that was my guess too. But since there are two answers explaining this away as some sort of very counter-intuitive rhetoric construct, I'll have to at least assume usages like this are known and understood at least in some parts of the English speaking community shrug. – Cubic Jul 24 '16 at 8:02
  • @Cubic ~ it's not counter-intuitive – user180089 Jul 29 '16 at 17:51
  • @Bobby''V0ight''Peru-------- Objectively speaking? Maybe, maybe not. But intuition isn't an objective thing, and this construct is very much counter to my intuition. – Cubic Jul 29 '16 at 18:19

This is a case of an "exclusive or" being used rhetorically to provide an illusion of choice to better help whomever is speaking the phrase to decide what will benefit her concerning the future of her health.

The two choices aren't being presented in the context of consequence, but in the context of psychology, i.e. which of these states of mind will most benefit the person making the decision.

The first psychological choice presented is this:

"Do I want to drink the wine because it gives me pleasure and makes me feel good?"

and the second psychological choice presented is this:

"Do I want to drink the wine because it will potentially kill me by giving me breast cancer?"

The choice lies in the state of mind the drinker is having before potentially drinking. As you can see, it presents the "dilemma" in a way that the answer is obvious to the speaker of the sentence. This rhetorical strategy would be lost if the speaker instead replaced the "or" with an "and".

Notice that in the original sentence the doctor specifically separated the two sides of "or" with the qualifier "do I want ..." OR "do I want ....". This shows that the choice lies in what psychological state you can choose between and NOT intending to show cause and effect. If the doctor DID want to show cause and effect, this sentence would have been used:

"Do I want the glass of wine and subsequently raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Notice the subtle differences between this use of "and" as opposed to the use of "do I want ... OR do I want ...."

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    Davies followed the question with "I take a decision every time I have a glass." That tells me the "or" is not inclusive; it's an either-or proposition. I'm certain she just misspoke. – Kef Schecter Jul 24 '16 at 1:45
  • @Kef Schecter ~ I suppose I can see it as being an exclusive 'or'. It's debatable really. – user180089 Jul 24 '16 at 1:55

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