by Jon N. Hall 10/17/15
Many native speakers of the English language, even the highly educated, regularly misuse the word “or” and don’t even realize it. Quite a claim; we Anglophones can’t even use a common two-letter conjunction correctly. The main reason for this sad state of affairs is that for decades the guardians of the English language have been remiss.
The rules of English language usage shouldn’t just codify the “logic” of casual conversation. But that seems to be the case in a rule propounded by Bryan A. Garner, usage expert par excellence. In the 2003 edition of his celebrated Garner’s Modern American Usage, all one finds in the entry for “or” is this: “See and/or.” Garner’s entry for “and/or” is perfectly sound. Where we find the unfortunate rule for “or” is, oddly, in the entry for “nor.” The rule remained unchanged in the 2009 edition (page 571):
B. For or. 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. The initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements.
Generally better? If “a disjunctive conjunction is needed,” then of course “or” would be the right word. That’s because “or” is disjunctive while “nor” isn’t. And those two “function words” have markedly different functions. One might think that a prescriptivist like Garner would say that one of them is correct and the other one isn’t.
Garner’s rule is nonsense. English conjunctions do more than merely connect; they set conditions for what’s being connected. “Or” stipulates (at least) one, and “nor” stipulates none. Nonetheless, language experts contend that these two rather different words are interchangeable under negation. What I’ll focus on is the second sentence of the quote, as the notion that an “initial negative carries through” is the cause of the error.
If an “initial negative” carries through, then wouldn’t an initial positive (i.e. affirmation) also carry through? Of course, affirmation is the default; it doesn’t require an “initial positive.” But no usage expert would say that when affirmation is applied to an enumeration that the elements can be connected by “nor.” Imagine an airline stewardess asking you, Coffee, tea, nor milk? Or imagine the cashier at your grocery asking, Paper nor plastic? That’s crazy talk! Just because negation and affirmation carry through doesn’t mean that we can use any old conjunction.
Garner’s rule appeared in nearly identical language at least as early as 2000; specifically on page 230 of his The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. So the rule has been proliferating, along with the business about the “initial negative” carrying through.
On July 5 of 2009, linguist Arnold Zwicky quoted Garner’s rule in its entirety in his blog post “Emphatic nor.” Zwicky takes Sarah Palin to task for this: “I’ve never believed that I, nor anyone else, needs a title to do this.” (The statement comes at minute 8:15 in this C-Span video of Governor Palin’s resignation announcement.)
One of the persistent problems of so many language experts is their choice of examples to illustrate with. Quite often they choose examples that are simply inapposite to whatever they’re trying to prove, and that seems to be the case here. By setting off “nor anyone else” with commas, isn’t Palin creating a parenthetical phrase? If so, Palin’s statement does not contain an enumeration and therefore cannot be used to illustrate Garner’s rule.
Zwicky contends that Palin’s use of “nor” isn’t “non-standard,” but that he would “probably” have used “or” nonetheless. Actually, this isn’t a matter of choice. That’s because the clause that follows Palin’s “that” must be positive regardless of whether we have an enumeration or a parenthetical phrase. Indeed, if we substituted “or,” and struck out the commas to give us a true enumeration, Palin’s statement would have a “quasi-Morganian” structure: I’ve never believed that I or anyone else needs a title to do this.
Would that it were so simple that all one had to do is substitute the right word and all would be well. But what’s really needed in many examples is a rewrite. Here’s how to rewrite Ms. Palin and avoid our difficulties: I’ve never believed that anyone needs a title to do this.
Mr. Zwicky then expounds on Garner’s carrying through shtick: “the initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements (so that the negation need not be repeated; though Garner doesn’t say this, the suggestion is that later negation is redundant).” But “neither-nor” is repeated negation, and it is well accepted. Zwicky also writes: “Sometimes in cases of variation within the standard, MWDEU ends up telling the readers that they can use whichever variant sounds best to them in the circumstances.”
The Merriam–Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage that Zwicky cites is putting out some bad advice, at least on this issue. Going by whichever “sounds best” is precisely the problem, as our “ears” have been corrupted by a century of bad grammar advice. We simply do not hear the illogic.
On page 2 of “When to Use ‘Nor’” at Quick and Dirty Tips (Grammar Girl), Bonnie Mills also quotes from Garner’s rule:
… you should use “or” to continue the negative thought because according to Bryan Garner “the initial negative carries through to all the enumerated elements” (5). For example, when you use the word “not,” the structure “not A or B” is correct. You’d have to say, “He is not interested in math or science”; “He is not interested in math nor science” won’t work.
I’d say that what Ms. Mills isn’t very interested in is logic. To illustrate her grasp of how an “initial negative carries through,” let’s rewrite Mills’ sentence by actually carrying her subject and its predicate through to the alternative: He is NOT interested in math OR he is NOT interested in science. That rewrite is a fair equivalent of Mills’ “correct” sentence, and it’s doubtful that it expresses her intent. What Mills probably intends is: He is interested in neither math nor science; that neither A nor B be the case. But by employing “not-or,” we don’t know if he IS interested in math or science or neither.
Over at Grammarly Answers, “expert” Shawn Mooney plays his part in the proliferation of Garner’s rule by quoting the Grammar Girl quote above, after which is this gem: “For the benefit of my fellow experts …” And so error begets error, and in short order Anglophones no longer know the difference between “or” and “nor.” And “and”? Forget “and”; much too complicated. (I write this, heh-heh, “for the benefit of my fellow experts.”)
In a 2010 memorandum out of the Colorado General Assembly we read on page 2, item 4, that “the new constitutional provision does not apply to, affect, or prohibit …” If there were no negative and it read “[does] apply to, affect, or prohibit,” normal folks would ask, Well, which is it, is it apply to, affect, or prohibit? And get this: Garner’s rule was quoted in its entirety in the Technical Comments on page 4 (item 6) of the memorandum.
The language of item 4 in the memorandum was repeated in the text of the ballot initiative, specifically subsection 2, which could have been salvaged merely by changing “or” to “nor.” Perhaps Coloradans defeated the ballot initiative because of its dearth of clarity.
The Colorado initiative is not unique. Indefiniteness and even ambiguity is marbled into the flesh of American law. That means that the meaning of our law is left to the tender mercies of those who interpret it … judges.
One fine judge, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, has appeared on stage several times with … Bryan A. Garner, who in addition to being a usage expert is a lawyer. Here’s a YouTube video of Garner calling Scalia the “greatest living legal writer.” At LawProse, Garner advises lawyers on language. Despite his position on the issue at hand, I applaud Mr. Garner’s efforts to bring clarity to legal writing.
On Sep. 27, 2012, the New York Times ran “Which Language Rules to Flout. Or Flaunt?” It’s a debate between Garner and descriptivist Robert Lane Greene on the continuing “Language Wars,” and I recommend their lively and erudite exchange. Unfortunately, Mr. Garner takes his own advice with this: “The positions attributed to prescriptivists, even in your own work, almost never align with positions taken by Fowler, Partridge, Nicholson, Bernstein, Gowers, Follett or me.”
Anglophones aren’t going to get much help from language experts on this issue, as neither descriptivists nor prescriptivists seem to have the juice to recognize that the “or” in the quote above is not “generally better.”
(Read my replacement for Garner’s rule.)
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.