Is it OK to use ‘and/or’?

By Mary Morel | April 2014

I read an American grammarian who said that style books frown on the use of and/or. I don’t use and/or often, but since I don’t see a problem with it, I turned to the Chicago Manual of Style. Sure enough, it said:

‘Avoid this Janus-faced term. It can often be replaced by and or or with no loss in meaning. Where it seems needed {take a sleeping pill and/or a warm drink}, try or … or both {take a sleeping pill or a warm drink or both}. But think of other possibilities {take a sleeping pill with a warm drink}.’

Still not convinced that and/or is bad, nor that ‘taking a sleeping pill with a warm drink’ is the same advice as ‘taking a sleeping pill and/or a warm drink’, I consulted the Australian Commonwealth style manual. I couldn’t find a reference there, so turned to Pam Peters’ The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. She says: ‘At its best, and/or is a succinct way of giving three alternatives for the price of two.’

The child’s father and/or mother should attend the meeting.
is equivalent to:
The child’s father, or mother, or both of them should attend the meeting.’

As long as there are just two coordinates, the meaning of and/or is clear, though the reader may have to pause over it to tease out the alternatives. Where there are more than two items, the number of possible alternatives goes up and becomes unmanageable. Try:

The child’s mother, father and/or guardian should attend the meeting.

With three coordinates, the meaning is inscrutable and expressions of this kind are no doubt the ones which give and/or its bad reputation for ambiguity. It is sometimes said to belong in the contexts of legal and business writing, yet the citations in Webster’s English Usage (1989) show that it’s widely used in informative writing for the general reader.’

What do you think of and/or?

 
 

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