My wife and I are playing a game where you roll dice and move so many spaces in a grid "vertically or horizontally".

In the use of English it is very common to say, this or the other when it comes to making a choice (exclusive or). Now I know that "or" can also be inclusive, for example "she couldn't read or write", or can be clearly used as an xor "you either come or not" making the statement true for only one of the options but not both.

My issue is where it is not clear whether it is an inclusive/exclusive or, the best example being our game.

I argue that you can move in either direction (inclusive) and the normal use of this conjunction in English should be inclusive unless specified otherwise.

Is this right?

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    The linguists here may not agree, but, in matters like this, my marriage counselor would advise you to go with whichever interpretation she thinks is correct. :^)
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 3:07
  • You might look at this question.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 3:48
  • I can see why you might think it means either in the sense of both here, but without knowing the game rules better, I cannot say whether it requires that pieces be moved only in straight lines. See updated answer.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 4:36
  • 3
    For the interpretation of your game rules, I would presume that if you roll a 5, you move 5 spaces in one direction out of the set (up/down/left/right). You don't move 2 up and then 3 left, nor any other combination totaling 5 (and you certainly don't move 5 up AND 5 left).
    – Hellion
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 16:17
  • 1
    AND is often used in English to mean OR: "A discount is given to people under age 12 AND people over age 65." Obviously, one cannot be both. I warn my programming students about this in terms of gathering specifications. Nail them down.
    – user126158
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 2:10

4 Answers 4


I agree with you (and have written to this effect here) that English or is ambiguous.

Alongside your “she couldn’t read or write” and Andrew Lazarus’ “You must be crazy or stupid” there are ordinary constructions like “Help yourself to chicken or ribs or chili or whatever strikes your fancy” and “I like Dickens better than Trollope or Scott or Thackeray” in which or is clearly not exclusive. If it were not so, lawyers and technical writers would never trouble to insert “but not both” to specifically exclude an inclusive reading, just as they insert “or both” to specifically exclude an exclusive reading.

Under ordinary circumstances, the context makes clear which meaning is intended. If a waiter tells you you may have mashed potatoes or fries with your steak, both of you know perfectly well he means one or the other but not both. On the other hand, if he asks if you would like coffee or dessert you do not understand him to forbid your ordering both coffee and a slice of pie.

But when there is no such context I would follow tchrist this far: the default reading is exclusive.

  • 2
    Yes, I always insert that "or both" to ensure that the conjunctive possibility exists whenever it does. So I'd agree that it's inherently ambiguous except in restaurants where only one cup of tea or coffee and one piece of pie or cake comes with the meal: you don't get both and you know it. In Chinese restaurants, of course, it's always "one from column A and one from column B".
    – user21497
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 4:27
  • This is a great answer, just so you know I took my examples from the iPhone dictionary, they all could be used as inclusive unless noted otherwise. As an English learner I have heard many times phrases like "she couldn't read or write" (also taken from the iphone example) which sounds dumb yet are commonly used... Very confusing, this brings some clarity, thanks.
    – Onema
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 4:50

It is untrue that the natural English or is clearly and uniformly disjunctive. If it were, it would be impossible to add "or both" or "or whatever" to an or clause, or to make a list of more than two items, as in StoneyB's examples:

“Help yourself to chicken or ribs or chili or whatever strikes your fancy” and “I like Dickens better than Trollope or Scott or Thackeray”

RJB is correct that

how a person uses 'or' is very much defined by their perception of what they mean, rather than by any formal rules of the English language

Often we use or to convey a feeling of subjective doubt:

He speaks French, Spanish, Portuguese and German or Finnish, I forget...

The point is not "either G/or F"; the point is "maybe G, maybe F...". And while we tend to use "either.. or..." to strengthen the sense of "not and", this is a matter of degree not kind. There's a nice page on contract drafting here and StoneyB's superb coffee & cake example makes it clear that context is key, (or) perhaps even king. Note also that English uses or in negative sentences such as the following:

Bob's not in his room or his study.

Clearly in logical terms what is meant here is "Bob is not in his room and Bob is not in his study". Natural English does not use and because the conjunction falls within the scope of the negation (and it's obvious that Bob can't be in both places at once, so why say it?). In more formal English, we would say he is neither in his room nor in his study. Some languages, such as Chinese, use a positive conjunction and two negative particles to convey this idea (他不在房間不在書房).

But I'd agree that, apart from contextual considerations, the default meaning of or does tend to be disjunctive. Frequently when translating the Chinese or, I have to use and in English because the or is insufficiently inclusive.


It seems to me that how a person uses 'or' is very much defined by their perception of what they mean, rather than by any formal rules of the English language. And this can usually be interpreted from the context, particularly in speech, by a person with English as a first language.

And this gives rise to another problem - the difference between written and spoken language, and the problem of writing language as it is spoken, rather than having an awareness of the difference between the two (with spoken language usually having much more nuance, through changes of vocalisation, tone, etc., than written language, and a hearer usually more able to quickly discern a meaning).

Be that as it may, English is my only language and I have always regarded 'or' as exclusive, although I know that others do not do so. So when I mean one or the other or both I usually insert an 'and/or', particularly in written text.

Also, someone mentioned the use of 'either... or' somewhere, on this or another page. It seems to me that as soon as we use 'either' we are automatically exclusivising the 'or'. However, I don't think it's really the 'or' that's exclusive in this case, but rather the combination of the two words that gives rise to the exclusivity.


In English, or is always disjunctive. There is no ambiguity.

It is either one or else it is the other. It is not both. That is why when it could be both, one always says “one or the other or both”. The or does not admit the possibility that both may apply. So you have to add or both if you want both to be a possibility.

In other words, it corresponds to the computer’s xor operation, not to the computer’s or operation. The English or is really an xor.

As Bill notes in a comment, it is always grammatically disjunctive. So “Either Peter or Paul is coming to dinner with Mary” demands a singular verb, and you should set two places at the table, not three.

If you said that in chess, the queen can move any number of unblocked spaces either vertically or horizontally, you know that she cannot do both at the same time. However, with your own game, I cannot say, because I do not know its rules. The question comes down to whether you have to move in a straight line in the game you are playing, and I do not know your game.

  • 7
    I don't think the or in "You must be stupid or crazy to believe that!" is strictly exclusive. Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 3:19
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    Along with what @Andrew said, I can think of other examples where or would function more like an or than an xor, like when a pro scout says, "We should try to get a quarterback who is strong or mobile," or when a woman says, "I'd like to marry a man who is handsome or rich." I'm not sure it's "always" disjunctive; there are times when "both would be acceptable, if not even better" can be inferred from the context.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 3:50
  • 10
    "Or" is always disjunctive grammatically, which means that if the two NPs it disjoins are singular, the verb that follows is also singular: "George or Martha was murdered in Miami", but conjunctive grammatically gives "George and Martha were murdered in Miami". "My late mother-in-law couldn't read or write" (= could neither read nor write) (true fact) is similarly grammatically disjunctive but semantically conjunctive because it means that she was unable to do both. More proof that terminology explains nothing unless it's precisely & clearly defined.
    – user21497
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 4:19
  • 2
    The Queen in chess can move diagonally as well. And a diagonal line is a "straight" line. So your last paragraph is uninformed or incorrect.
    – user126158
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 2:04
  • 2
    According to Quirk etc in ACGEL [13.28] (I can't trace any licensing/proscribing in CGEL), although 'Or is normally interpreted as exclusive' and '[the] inclusive meaning [can be clearly signalled by [eg adding 'or both']]' are added as caveats, 'There can also occur, however, an inclusive interpretation of or'. // I'd interpret "Would you like a brew or a bite to eat?" to mean that the host was offering a brew or a bite to eat or both (or even a glass of water...). Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 12:09

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