by E-WRITE's Leslie O'Flahavan

January 25, 2010

Is Using "and/or" in a Sentence Just Plain Dumb?

A colleague of minean expert online editor and web content managersent me this e-mail last week:

Leslie -

Can you give me some style guidance or a citation that says “using ‘and/or’ in a sentence is just plain dumb"? I was editing some web pages and ran across this construction at least four times. I wanted to tell the writer to NEVER do this again but wanted some source material. I struggle to keep our pages from sounding too “researchery” or “lawyery” and, given where I work, that’s tough.

Always interested in being helpful, and in stamping out anything that's just plain dumb, I did some quick research online to see if style guides or other editorial experts also dislike and/or. Here's what I found:

So the verdict is in: and/or is JPD (just plain dumb).  Do you agree? Comment here or e-mail me with your opinion.

-- Leslie O'Flahavan

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Wow, that's really interesting. It never occurred to me that "and/or" was just plain dumb. :) I'm surprised that so many sources advise against using it. It seems like there ARE instances where that is the only way to really convey your meaning. Say, for example, if you were requesting art submissions. You might say, "Send us your paintings and/or drawings." You wouldn't say just "and" because you don't require both, but you wouldn't say just "or" because you do want to see both. Know what I mean? Is there NO proper usage of and/or?

Posted by: Jenny Kutz | January 25, 2010 at 04:32:22pm

Hi, Jenny - I agree. It's a bit rigid to take a hard line against and/or. The "paintings and/or drawings" example you gave seems an appropriate use of and/or to me. But frequently, "and" or "or" will do.

Posted by: Leslie O'Flahavan | February 1, 2010 at 09:39:34am

Jenny, In the example you cite, what is the meaning that you're trying to convey? It seems to me that "Send us your paintings or drawings, or both" IS what "and/or" is supposed to be conveying. Or you could say "Send us your paintings. Send us your drawings." That seems to cover it as well.

Posted by: Rjacobse | February 3, 2010 at 10:17:32am

How about the following: Send us your paintings, drawings, or both. Done deal!

Posted by: Matt Schrandt | February 5, 2010 at 11:00:53pm

I never liked the sound of “and/or”, but it seems to suit what I want to write or say often enough that I use it semi-regularly. My gut seems to agree with the sytle guides. I checked my copy of "The Elements of Style," and find this in the “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused” chapter: And/or. A device, or shortcut, that damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity. [Instead of this:] First of all, would an honor system successfully cut down on the amount of stealing and/or cheating? [Try this:] First of all, would an honor system reduce the incidence of stealing or cheating or both? Thanks for the interesting post!

Posted by: Greg Hoffman | February 26, 2010 at 03:49:37pm

Thanks, all, for weighing in on the and/or matter. I am pleasantly surprised at the amount of discussion this issue generated and the attention this post received from the legal community. This "just plain dumb" post was reposted at Evan Schaeffer's "The Trial Practice Tips Weblog," Raymond Ward's "the (new) legal writer," and the "Stark County Law Library Weblog." Apparently,obfuscation is going out of style.

Posted by: Leslie O'Flahavan | March 10, 2010 at 08:35:49am

I have used this construction on occasion. But after reading this post and comments, I think I'll use it less often. The "or both" option might be the best way around it.

Posted by: Lilleyjohn | March 12, 2010 at 05:39:29am

I don't like and/or but I think "or both" is probably worse and take longer for the reader to process.

Posted by: Ron Miller | March 26, 2010 at 02:20:28pm

My college English Composition instructor said we should always use "paintings or drawings or both" to be unambiguous. However, that was a 100 years ago!

Posted by: Chauncey Baldwin | November 15, 2012 at 05:59:06pm

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