Lousy Logic: Get Used to It

Languageby 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.

Also see: Law, Logic, and the Tendency to Overcomplicate
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (3973 views)

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21 Responses to Lousy Logic: Get Used to It

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    It is for the sake of exactitude that we create “usage rules.”

    In Theodore Dalrymple’s book, “Spoilt Rotten,” I found this interesting quote by Confucius that relates to the above:

    If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will be confused. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.

    Here’s an interesting point from Jon’s article:

    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.

    I admit to not being to sure how to use nor. Nor am I sure about or. But it sounds right to my ear to say “He cannot eat or sleep” (meaning that he can do neither at the moment). And it sounds wrong to say “He cannot eat and sleep.” That sounds not only a bit linguistically rough but it gives the impression also of “He can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” Subtle, but that’s what I hear.

    And the sentence “He cannot eat nor sleep” sounds like it came out of the mouth of Hawthorne. It sounds 19th century erudite…and that’s not a bad thing.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      “He cannot eat and sleep.”

      I would hope not unless by eating one means simply taking some type of nourishment and then an IV drip would make eating during sleep a possibility. I admit it is a stretch.

      But I do like Neither/Nor as in “you are neither hot nor cold, neither fish nor foul, etc, etc, etc.”

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    There are probably very few absolute rules in English, but as a general rule, “nor” should be paired with “neither”, which takes care of the problem. I will note that I have a punctuation change that I use, regarding the placement of the comma outside a quote if there is no proper break (e.g., listing story titles, or in my earlier use with “neither”). Standard usage would put the comma inside double quotes but outside single quotes. My method admittedly has the disadvantage that one has to think about it to decide where to put the comma (or for that matter a period or other such punctuation). But I don’t find that much of a problem.

    • Rosalys says:

      I have a friend who is a teacher of technical writing at a local junior college. She says that a period, exclamation point or question mark properly belongs inside the parenthesis. Being a visually oriented person it doesn’t always look right to me, nor does the placement of a comma or period outside a quotation mark. Something about too much or not enough space between marks and letters – I want to balance the pictorial composition. So this is where facts must override feelings and I do as I’m told rather than what I want to do. Soon enough the correct way to do things begins to look and feel correct. Rules are comforting.

      So it is rather discomfiting to learn that there is so much disagreement going on among the keepers of the language! Way, way long ago when I was taking a typing class in high school, I was taught that after the end of a sentence two spaces are required before the beginning of the next one. Not twenty years later I was told by my daughter, “We don’t do that anymore!” So now it is just one space. I was also recently told by my technical writing friend that there is a looming controversy as to whether a comma is necessary before the “and” or “or” in a list. Is “apples, oranges, banana and pears” or “apples, oranges, bananas, and pears” correct? I was taught the former; my friend says the latter is gaining acceptance. Now I am in a tizzy! It matters to me because I am a pre-press person at work and my job includes typesetting.

      As to, “Pie or cake?” I see no reason why that cannot mean a little piece of each, please!

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Yes, that’s what I learned about quotes; I just find my approach more logical, and use it knowing it violates the rules. I still use 2 spaces after a period (or exclamation point or question mark) or colon, just as I was taught (I can see a logic to a longer space than after a comma or semicolon). As for the so-called serial comma, there’s the famous (probably apocryphal) story of a woman who dedicated something to “my parents, Ayn Rand and God”. That must have been an interesting marriage! (Incidentally, Esther Friesner once had a student who was supposed to do a family tree going back 3 generations, the only problem being that his mother was a demon. It’s a pity she never actually said what he provided his teacher.)

        As for that final question, you won’t find ME disagreeing with you.

  3. Glenn Fairman says:

    I have corresponded with Mr. Hall several times and find him to be quite exacting in his observations. I am glad to see the likes of him here

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:


    Let me use your post (and a good one it was) as a jumping off point, both for describing my general philosophy of writing/grammar and what the standards of this site are.

    I had a very self-conscious idea when starting StubbornThings: We would not mistake style for substance.

    Some of the stupidest ideas in the world are written in perfect English. And it seems that for a certain set of people (Thomas Sowell calls them “intellectuals”), the refinement of their diction takes precedence over the refinement of their ideas. That is, style takes the place of substance. It’s analogous to a disheveled serial murderer who goes on trial in a newly-bought suit, a clean-shaven face, and newly-trimmed hair. But that outer veneer doesn’t change the monster that lurks underneath.

    Style does have its place. But, first and foremost, we must understand that the point of language is to communicate. And our style is part of that communication but it is by no means all of that communication. But a misplaced word or comma can be like a misplaced note in a symphony that you are otherwise enjoying. It’s not the end of the world if there is an off note. One can still enjoy the music. After all, did we every throw away a favorite record because of a click caused by a scratch?

    I think that most errors of writing detract not because the errors sound folksy or informal (both of which have their time and place) but because they interrupt the flow of the music of the words. And many of these interruptions have little to do with the “correct rules” as much as just the “ear” or art of writing. If you’ve ever read some of those postmodern letters by professors that have made the rounds on the internet, you’ll find all the “right” words are being used, and in the correct order. But it’s all gibberish.

    We should never be too anal about any of this. The English language is not a programming language. One misplaced comma does not crash the entire sentence or paragraph. Spoken or written language (particularly written language) is very fault tolerant. I’m sure you’ve all seen those examples where only the top half of a written word or sentence is presented, but you can fairly easily read it anyway. The same with grammar. We aim for refinement, if only because aesthetic value, and not just informational value, is part and parcel of writing. But there is no perfect. There is no set formula. And we can squeeze the life out of language and writing if we are too pedantic. I’d rather an error be made by someone trying to express a complex thought or feeling than have a perfect sentence squeezed of all life, but a sentence that is technically correct.

    But, as they say, before you can break the rules you must learn what the rules are. And regarding commas in a series, I would say to always include the comma before the “and.” It’s simply a matter of not providing your reader with an unnecessary interruption or ambiguity. There are many cases where the meaning of the sentence can become confused without the comma, and the reader is forced to stop and re-read the sentence. As one site says about the comma:

    The comma exists to help readers. When properly placed, commas clarify meaning by helping readers organize information. Without it, sentence parts can collide into one another and cause confusion.

    The placement of a comma is very much a function of “ear,” of what sounds right, of where you need a pause or marker so that one clause does not run into another. A comma is very much like taking a breath in the middle of a long sentence.

    And unless someone is adamant about it, I will always tuck that comma or period before the quotation marks.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      ” The English language is not a programming language”

      English stylistics are quite flexible yet despite, or possibly because of this, it is difficult to compose a beautiful sentence in English. Few people achieve this and those who do have a supreme talent.

      The rules of composition in German are pretty clear and strict.


      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Yes, German reminds me a bit more of a programming language. Pascal?

        I think what English loses in complexity it also gains in complexity. A twelve-string guitar is harder to play than a six-string one. But your music can be more complex.

        As for the beauty of the sentence, I’m convinced that such things (assuming the tools at hand are minimally adequate) are all in the heart, mind, and creativity of the writer. I mean, it truly is possible to look at lines of computer codes and see elegance and beauty despite the inherently dry and pedantic nature of computer languages. If one can’t do that in English (or any other full-blown language), then the answer is practice, practice, practice…and read a bit more Hawthorne.

      • Rosalys says:

        Speaking of programming languages reminds me of something my husband would tell me every time I had a problem with the computer.

        “You have to remember that a computer never does what you WANT it to do. It always does exactly what you TELL it to do!”

        • Timothy Lane says:

          As a former computer programmer, I can say that this is one reason it can be difficult to debug your own code. There’s always the problem that you know what it’s supposed to do, and this can make it hard to see what you’ve actually told it to do.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      My general view of language rules is that I try to follow them (with very rare modifications of my own) unless that results in something that sounds too pedantic.

      As for the monster in good clothes, this is why many police forces now choose to videotape drunk driving arrests. This lets the jury see the defendant not just as a calm, presentable individual, but as a (possibly belligerent) drunk. Style unfortunately trumps substance for all too many people (and not just liberals).

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I didn’t know that they did the drunk driving videos. Makes sense. This is my all-time favorite in that regards. And if you haven’t seen this, you must watch until the very end.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I’m surprised the constitutional scholar could stand with .301 blood alcohol. Must have been mixing with something else.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      “the refinement of their diction takes precedence over the refinement of their ideas.”

      The old form over function question. The Japanese have perfected this. No other people, at least that I have encountered, spend the time and effort on packaging, particularly of gifts. Presentation is more important that the actual gift, which will, as likely as not, be passed on to someone else without opening it.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Well, one could say (from what you describe) that the point of the gift is to show respect by putting so much time and effort into the presentation. It’s like wearing a suit when you go to church. You’re showing respect to the minister and to the other congregants.

        As a principle, this is fine as long as people remember that we are all naked underneath! 😀 But people very easily forget this. This is so, and inevitably so, amongst a social species such as ours where the essence of much of one’s life and living has to do with how others think of us (we are always engaging in “personal micro-marketing,” if you will). And it’s very easy to get lost in that, especially in our mass-marketed, celebrity-oriented, special-effects-emphasized culture that we are in now. It’s the one whose abiding truth is “perception is reality.”

        And I just don’t buy that. I, in fact, reject that. But in doing so, I don’t deny the little social niceties such as wearing a suit at a funeral. Note that the loony Left have even “deconstructed” this reasonable idea, taking it to their usual loony extreme by saying that a suit-and-tie is “oppressive” or somehow gets in the way of one’s “true self” — and thus the dirty hippie was born, the one about whom Ronald Reagan said, “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Showing respect and giving face is very important in Japanese society. But the practice of gift giving has become such a proforma action that the people are pretty jaded about it. Unopened gifts are sometimes literally passed from person to person to the extent that they come back to the original giver. People also often forget who gave them what thus return a giver’s gift at a later date without recalling the giver was the original source of the gift.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I was just watching a season-four “Seinfeld” episode at lunch. Someone (a mutual friend named “the Drake”) was getting married and the Seinfeld Four were all going to buy wedding presents for the couple. George has a good rant about always having to buy gifts for this or that. It’s never-ending. Gifts (surely Dalrymple touched on something similar to this in “Spoilt Rotten”) become a type of blackmail. It’s not necessarily “niceness” behind them. It’s the knowledge that you “better do so, or else.”

            Some of that just goes with the territory of living amongst people and there’s no escaping it. But from talking with my younger brother, this whole gift-giving thing (for every damn thing these days) is escalating, to the point of putting financial burdens on families.

            So, eventually, the gifts mean very little. They might be useful as a social grace. But, oddly, there is an implied threat behind them…hardly what you’d think of as “grace.”

            And in that same “Seinfeld” episode was another scene ready-made for Theodore Dalrymple. George parks in a handicap spot at the mall. When the gang comes back to the car after shopping for their gifts for the married couple, they find a crowd of very angry people milling around the car. They are waiting for the owners to return with obviously violent intent. Apparently some woman in a wheelchair injured herself in some way because she didn’t have access to the handicapped spot that Costanza had taken.

            This is a very funny take-off on the idea that Dalrymple develops in “Spoilt Rotten,” that behind all this “sentimentality” and “niceness” lurks the bully. When they come upon this scene of an enraged mob, George, Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine pretend they don’t own the car and walk away. When eventually the crowd disperses and George comes back to retrieve his car, the car has been thoroughly trashed.

    • Rosalys says:

      It make sense and I shall henceforth put the comma before the and in a listing.

      Yes, the purpose of language is communication. It use to bother me when I just could not, no matter how hard I tried, understand what some people (more often than not the “intellectuals” Thomas Sowell refers to) were talking about. Then it occurred to me that their use of words was not to enlighten but to confuse, and to confuse in such a way as to give an impression of superiority and brilliance. So now when I here nonsense I figure it is just that – if the fellow knew what he was talking about he’d be able or at least try to make himself understood.

      Since being understood is the purpose of language, this must be why the left is continually destroying language. If they ever came right out and in plain English said what they mean they would expose themselves for the evil nincompoops they are. As it is it must be damned difficult for them which must be why they have had to make public education mandatory, seize control of it and use it to un-educate the populace. Working hard at this singular purpose for over a century, if nothing else you have to admire their tenacity!

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Check out “Politics and the English Language” by Orwell.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        It make sense and I shall henceforth put the comma before the and in a listing.

        It’s the small victories that make life worth living. Thanks, Rosalys!! 😀

        Then it occurred to me that their use of words was not to enlighten but to confuse, and to confuse in such a way as to give an impression of superiority and brilliance.

        Yes, that is what is called being an enlightened individual. You’re clearly not just a cynic who trusts nothing. But you’ve learned that — especially out of the mouths of politicians — that you have to run whatever they say (twice) through a BS detector.

        And I say that as someone who once thought Teddy Kennedy would make a good president. So we all live and learn. We trust, but verify, as Reagan said.

        And I was thinking while writing that “language is about communication” that very often what another person wants to communicate is a lie. But the same rules still apply. Good liars tend to sound very sincere. They stick at least to the social laws of syntax. Their grammar may be quite good.

        I happen to think Obama is a bad liar, but then I think this is due to the fact that, 1) I am not predisposed to believe his lies and, 2) my mental faculties (my BS detector) haven’t been corrupted by years of “Progressive” indoctrination.

        It’s a very powerful thing if you consider that the people who believe Obama’s lies (and those of the Democrat Party) think that their belief makes them the kindest, smartest, and most compassionate people on the planet. That’s precisely why the Left can be thought of as a cult. They are.

        Anyone who takes part in a forum such as this is okay in my eyes…at least if they can transcend mere talking points. Here we talk in paragraphs, not sound bytes. How the mind does not melt and drain out of the ears of the people who spend most of their intellectual time sending short, inane text messages is a mystery to me.

        The Gold Standard for writing, at least to me, is to be concise, but not so concise that you talk virtually in terms of soundbytes. Ideas need to be developed to a certain minimum to bridge understanding and, if anything, to show that the writer isn’t just talking out of his butt — but too much can be a sign of trying to bamboozle, to bend people to their will by sheer force.

        Since being understood is the purpose of language, this must be why the left is continually destroying language. If they ever came right out and in plain English said what they mean they would expose themselves for the evil nincompoops they are.

        That reminds me of something Deana said the other day in one of her articles:

        maybe we can pretend our way into a utopian world where responsibility and Truth will no longer be necessary… maybe we can make a fantasy reality by passing laws.

        It is far easier to build castles in one’s mind than to deal with reality. It reminds me of that Monty Python bit from “The Holy Grail”: Swamp Castle:

        Listen, lad. I’ve built this kingdom up from nothing. When I started here, all there was was swamp. All the kings said I was daft to build a castle in a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show ’em. It sank into the swamp. So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. An’ that’s what your gonna get, lad — the strongest castle in these islands.

        Instead of building on a solid foundation, the Left keeps building on sand. The bastardizing of language they do is not only to deceive us but to deceive themselves, for many of them are quite beholden to their exalted visions of Utopia. But whatever the heady temperature of their thoughts, they keep building castles in swamps.

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