In the following, “does not cause” seems to be clear negation, and total negation requires “or”, therefore:

The widget does not cause deformities or cracks

However, it is unclear to me whether the following types of words and phrases are strong enough in negation to enable an “or” to clearly express total negation.

For example:

The widget leaves a product:

without X or Y
free from X or Y
lacking X or Y


  1. Would, for example, “. . . without X or Y” above unambiguously mean “having no X and having no Y”?

  2. What is the term for this class of words and phrases and are there other common members of the group?

  • Why not say The widget leaves the product X-free and Y-free, and eliminate the possibility of ambiguity? – Jim Oct 24 '12 at 2:22
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    This is a tough question. On my PhD exam in semantics, I was asked to describe the similarities and differences among the negative predicates not have, lack, be without, and be missing. There are a lot of them, and they don't line up in any easy way. Try fitting them (and be free from) into this sentence, for instance: Bill ..... a finger on his left hand. By the way, they're simply called Negatives. – John Lawler Oct 24 '12 at 5:01
  • essentially, using nor in place of or removes the ambiguity. – SF. Oct 24 '12 at 8:34

If your sentence is going to begin with The widget leaves a product and end with without X or Y, it means that the widget somehow fixes the product. If the widget is an antivirus and antispam/malware program, e.g., and the product is your computing device, then you can use one of these three:

The widget leaves a product without X or Y

is clear and means that there will be neither X (viruses) nor Y (spam/malware) in the product. The same is true for

The widget leaves a product without X and Y


The widget leaves a product free from X and Y

but the option with "lacking X or Y" is, IMHO, undesirable.

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  • Note that lacking X and Y is better, but if you're trying to get rid of X and Y, it's bad phrasing because lacking is a word with negative connotations (at least in American English). – Peter Shor Oct 24 '12 at 3:45

Either of these is better than what you have, since they are no longer ambiguous:

  1. The widget does not crack or cause deformities.
  2. The widget causes neither cracks nor deformities.

And yes, those mean different things. Your sentence is very unclear, so it could go either way. I don’t know which sense you intended.

You could even use nor in place of or in the first one if you wanted:

  • The widget does not crack nor cause deformities.
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    I think you misread OP's first example. The last word is "cracks", which can only be interpreted as a second (plural) thing the widget doesn't cause. There's nothing to suggest it could be a verb, and that the widget itself is being claimed not to crack. – FumbleFingers Oct 24 '12 at 2:39
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    The widget neither cracks nor causes deformities is better style, IMHO. Regardless of whether this is or isn't what the OP wants to say. – user21497 Oct 24 '12 at 2:42
  • Thank you for the suggestions. However, I am unable to change the wording because the client insists on using the phrase “without” (or “free from” or “lacking”), which are in reference documents. And so I was asked if “without X or Y” means the same as “having no X and having no Y”. The client asked me whether total negation requires “Or” after expressions such as “without”. If such phrases do not unambiguously result in negation, perhaps I can explain that to the client, but changing the wording is not an option. – curious-proofreader Oct 24 '12 at 3:01
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    Note that "lacking" is a word with negative connotation, so "lacking X and Y" would be seen as a bad thing. On the other hand, "free from X and Y" would be seen as a good thing. So if you were talking about food, you would generally say "lacking nutrients" and "free from contamination", and not the other way around. The word without is neutral. – Peter Shor Oct 24 '12 at 3:49

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