What does ‘and/or’ really mean?

Writing ‘and/or’ in a sentence seems like an economical way to cover a couple of alternatives at once, doesn’t it? That’s what I thought before I started working with words for a living.

I’ve since discovered that little old ‘and/or’ can mean several different things. Take this sentence, for example:

‘I’m going skydiving and I plan to stay calm using positive affirmations and/or deep breathing.’

That could mean I plan to stay calm:

  1. using positive affirmations and deep breathing
  2. using positive affirmations or deep breathing
  3. using positive affirmations or deep breathing or both.

If I’m going to use both methods, number 1 is correct. If I’m going to choose one method or the other, number 2 is accurate. If I might use both methods or just one, number 3 is the right choice.

Whichever combination I choose, I need to get rid of ‘and/or’ altogether to be clear and accurate.

Image, Man about to skydive, looking nervous.

Deep breathing calms your nervous system. Image by Greg Palmer / CC BY 2.0

My approach to skydiving only affects me, but what if ‘and/or’ appears in a policy document or a legal contract? How would readers know which of the possible meanings was the correct one? Short answer — they wouldn’t know for sure, and that could cause problems.

In The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, author Bryan Garner describes ‘and/or’ as ‘especially unfit for legal writing because it is inherently ambiguous’.

So if you find yourself tempted to write ‘and/or’, take a step back and think through what you really mean.

And if you’re planning to stay calm while skydiving, the very best of luck to you!

Image, Man skydiving, looking happy.

Skydivers often experience euphoria. Image by Greg Palmer / CC BY-SA 2.0

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