In a question such as "Does this word mean plenty or too much?" where the two words conjugated by "or" are similar in meaning could be asked in a way that a yes or no answer is expected instead of x or y. If the two options were seemingly unrelated or perhaps opposites, I guess we could assume from context that it is asked where it's this or that and not do x or y both/either satisfy the condition inquired in the question though the former type is still possible.

I wonder if this a recognized distinction and has a name.

  • How can a question involving two different meanings be answered as yes or no? They can't. Only a yes or no question can be. :) Is this red or blue? versus Is this red? Is this blue? – Lambie Sep 3 '18 at 19:37
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    @Lambie: Those people in the distance, with their white clothes, do you think they are doctors or nurses, or do you rather think they are druids? – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 3 '18 at 20:35
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    @Lambie I guess it can help to think that in one of the scenarios the "or" conjunction is what makes it a question and in the other, it is used in the same way "or" is used in statements but is part of a question, only -- conditional outcome of the "or" function (for lack of a better word I can think of in the grammatical context) is what constitutes the answer to the question. For example, if I had asked: "Is the sauna room at the optimal temperature or at least within the legal limit?" Either conditional conjugated by "or" is fine. So if either or both is the case, I expect to hear yes. – Ere-Eye Sep 3 '18 at 21:37
  • This is a great question, I'm looking forward to reading the answer! PS I recommend taking the Tour if you haven't already done so, and welcome to EL&U :-) – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Sep 3 '18 at 23:27
  • In strict grammar, “Does this word mean plenty or too much?” is a reasonable question but semantically, it’s pointless. Are you asking about a choice between “plenty” and “too much”, or about “either plenty or too much” as opposed to anything else? – Robbie Goodwin Sep 3 '18 at 23:42

Consulting the venerable Cambridge Grammar of the English Language it's clear that it is a recognized distinction, discussed fully in Chapter 15 Section 2.2 (And and or), where it is framed in logician's terminology.

When both coordinates separated by or can be true (i.e. when or implicates "and"), it's called Inclusive disjunction, as in "Houses are cheaper in Perth than in Sydney or Melbourne" or (in a question format) "Who would like tea or coffee?".

The other one (i.e. Exclusiveness as an implicature of or) is called Exclusive disjunction, as in "He was born on Christmas Day 1950 or 1951".

In a question format, the same question can have different meanings depending on the intonation:

  • "Would you like tea or coffee↗ ?" (inclusive)
  • "Would you like tea↗ or coffee↘?" (exclusive)

In the first question, you can answer: "Yes, I would like tea or coffee" (Note: or is retained in the answer). But in the second question, "Both" is not a possible answer.

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  • This is exactly what I was looking for! Thank you for your superb answer. – Ere-Eye Mar 21 '19 at 19:56

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