by Jon N. Hall 3/24/14
The mathematician John von Neumann once said: “Young man, in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” The same sort of thing might also be said about the English language — you don’t understand English; you just get used to it.
But with the English language, it may be even more the case than with math, (or, as the English would say, “maths”). Folks often have to guess what their fellow users of English are trying to convey; they have to fill in the blanks and even invert the meaning of words in order to grasp what they’re taking in. When one thinks about it for a bit, language itself can seem rather mystifying — better to just use it, right?
Not if one’s trying to be exact. It is for the sake of exactitude that we create “usage rules.” I’ve come up with a rule of my own that I contend should replace a current usage rule. As formulated by Bryan A. Garner, perhaps the dean of American usage experts, the current rule goes like this: “When the negative of a clause or phrase has appeared at the outset of an enumeration, and a disjunctive conjunction is needed, or is generally better than nor.”
That is nothing less than a codification of illogic; it is justification for an error that is at least as serious as using double negatives incorrectly. I say that because in the examples Garner uses to illustrate his rule, it is clear that disjunction is not what he intends. Intent is the issue here. Here, then, is my replacement rule: When the intent is to deny, disallow, exclude, or otherwise negate all the items on a list, don’t use “or.”
In the March 2013 issue of The Vocabula Review, I presented and argued for a version of this new rule. But many still cling to the current rule. And they can justify their error with several authoritative texts besides Garner’s, such as The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Although it is absent from the chapter “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused” in the original edition of Elements, in the fourth edition we find this entry:
Nor. Often used wrongly for or after negative expressions.
He cannot eat nor sleep.
He cannot eat or sleep.
He can neither eat nor sleep.
He cannot eat nor can he sleep.
Whoever decided to “improve” a classic might have been a tad lazy. For what, pray, is the difference between the “incorrect” sentence and the second of the corrected ones? Both contain a leading negative (“cannot” and “can neither”), so shouldn’t both demand the same conjunction? The only incorrect sentence is the one using “or,” or so I hope to demonstrate. One of the reasons that even otherwise level-headed blokes here in the colonies can be in a bit of a muddle on this issue is because some English conjunctions are, sad to say, inherently ambiguous.
One of the commenters on my Vocabula article seemed to believe that he had refuted my argument for my new rule because “or” can be either inclusive or exclusive. And indeed, formal logic does provide for the “inclusive or” (OR) and the “exclusive or” (XOR). In the English language the closest thing to an “inclusive or” may be “and/or.” (By the way, Garner wisely counsels against “and/or” in Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (2011); lawyers seem to regard the term as an abomination.) This is what the latest edition of Elements says of the term: “A device, or shortcut, that damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity.”
As for the “exclusive or,” if one needs precision, then one must add qualification, such as: Pie or cake, but not both; Coffee, tea, or milk, but only one. But one can usually tell by the context which “or” is intended, be it exclusive or inclusive. For instance, were an ad for a job to stipulate that applicants must possess a college degree or experience, folks wouldn’t expect to be denied an interview if they have both.
That “or” can be either exclusive or inclusive, however, is irrelevant to the issue I addressed — the application of negation to lists. Even so, every “or,” regardless of whether inclusive or exclusive, involves this: One of the listed items is to be included. But whereas “or” stipulates (at least) one, “nor” stipulates none. With “nor,” none of the items on a list can be included, which is confirmed by the NOR of formal logic. That is the main reason the current usage rule that treats “or” and “nor” as interchangeable is so dreadfully wrong.
Just as with “or,” “and” can be ambiguous, too. Take the old joke about the guy who can’t walk and chew gum. Actually, he can walk and chew gum, just not at the same time. So to drive the joke home, one must add the qualification. A similar problem would arise with our example from Elements if we substituted “and” for “nor.” You see, eating and sleeping are usually done separately, not simultaneously. (See AND.)
Many Americans will receive “He cannot eat and sleep” and “He cannot eat or sleep” the same way. “He cannot eat nor sleep,” though, riles up the usage experts. But of the three, “nor” is the conjunction that is the least ambiguous. Yet, word processors seem to flag “nor” more than “and” and “or.” However, my word processor, Microsoft Word 2010, doesn’t flag the “incorrect” sentence from Elements, not that that’s dispositive.
In the English language, “and,” “or,” and “nor” are all classed as conjunctions. But in formal logic, AND is conjunction and OR is disjunction. Garner, however, seems to think that “or” is a “disjunctive conjunction,” which seems a tad oxymoronic. Perhaps Garner and his acolytes suffer from conjunctivitis.
But what, pray, is “nor”? Is “nor” conjunctive or disjunctive? Neither, actually. The term for NOR in formal logic is “joint denial.” Joint denial is most definitely not disjunction. Yet, our usage expert says that “or,” when negated, “is generally better than nor.” Sheer twaddle!
The illogic that comes with English conjunctions might have been averted if dictionaries were a little more exact. Some dictionaries do include in their entries for the conjunctions in question the fact that they are logical operators and Boolean connectives. But I haven’t seen a dictionary that indicates that “or” specifies one, and “nor” specifies none. You’d think for such essential words that dictionaries would try to be complete. But on this, they’re insufficient.
Although they may not want to be constrained by anything so pedestrian, usage mavens and lexicographers must get up to speed on this little matter of logic. They need to acknowledge the authority of mathematical logicians over certain words that they, the language experts, lump under the rubric of “conjunctions.” You see the math guys own those words.
In any event, we must never allow ourselves to get too used to English.