And or ou

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As we've discussed more than once (e.g. "The billion-dollar conjunction", 12/30/2015), sometimes it's not clear how to interpret the choice between and and or, even when a lot depends on the answer. Adding to the list of such examples, R.A. sends in an example where English and has been translated as French ou.

This seems to be a matter of random stylistic preference rather than a difference between the languages, in that the English version might have chosen orand (or?) the French version might have chosen et, without changing the intended interpretation in either case. But at the same time, either choice in either language might perversely be given an unintended interpretation. Lawyers beware…

The context is promotional labeling on the box containing a ResQLink™ personal locator beacon.

The English version of the heading calls the device

The ultimate survival gear for boaters, outdoor enthusiasts, and pilots

The French version calls it

Le nec plus ultra en équipement de survie pour plaisanciers, randonneurs ou pilotes


The intended interpretation of the English and is distributive: the device is pitched as the ultimate survival gear for members of each of the three groups taken separately. The perverse misinterpretation would insist that it is the ultimate survival gear  only for individuals who happen to belong to all three categories, or perhaps for groups including members of all three categories.

The English blurb could have used or instead, as in the French version — "The ultimate survival gear for boaters, outdoor enthusiasts, or pilots" — and again, the intended interpretation would be that the device is the ultimate survival gear for any member of any of the three categories. The perverse misinterpretation would insist that the predicate applies to one of the three categories, but not necessarily to the others:  "Guess which and win a prize!"

The issue is a silly one in this context — but questions of a similar sort can have have serious consequences in the interpretation of laws, regulations, and contracts. In the case we discussed a couple of months ago, the disputed document contained a clause that we can paraphrase as "The conditions for termination of this contract are A, B, and C". And approximately a billion dollars depends on whether all three alternatives are required, even though they're to some extent mutually inconsistent.



  1. Peter said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    As a native English speaker the use of 'and' in this context to me is stronger and more persuasive than the use of 'or' – the intention is to sell its utility, I hear the 'and' spoken in capitals. In fact it reminds me of those ads on TV where the salesman emphasises it's attraction ' not only does it cut and slice but it also dices!'. In a neutral objective context however I agree that 'and' and 'or' are here equivalent. Perhaps French doesn't have this promotional usage lurking in the background.

  2. Martha said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 5:50 pm

    If "or" is used in that sentence, though, I have a sense that it is for just one of those types of people.

    I don't have a sense that "and" can make it mean that the product is for people who do all three of those activities. If everything were singular ("a boater, outdoor enthusiast, and pilot) then yes, but not with everything plural.

  3. Guy said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 6:04 pm


    I don't see any reason to assume that this is derived from "promotional" usage. It's always been the most common interpretation of "X's and Y's" in most contexts that it refers to the group formed by combining X's and Y's (women and children first). This isn't some special or unusual sense of "and".

  4. Awl said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 10:34 pm

    In cases like this I think of 'and' as a sort of comparative, like the Russian words и and а.

  5. January First-of-May said,

    February 28, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

    Um… what?
    The Russian word и (which I would translate as "and") is indeed used in similar contexts, though in this particular case, I might just as easily use или ("or"). In translating (the meaning of) the linked contract, I would definitely use the latter.
    As for the Russian word а, it is indeed a comparative; in the sentences I can think of, I would probably translate it as "while" or "but".

  6. Anthony said,

    February 28, 2016 @ 11:57 pm

    The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has always struck me as odd: do they tell the recipient which it was for? This doesn't strike me as a perverse misinterpretation, though it is possible that most achievements which nowadays win the prize could equally well (or poorly) fall under both descriptions, it being basically given for biology.

  7. Craig Morris (@PPchef) said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 5:39 am

    The same issue exists between English and German, and it drives me mad:

  8. John O'Toole said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

    I'm a professional translator working almost exclusively from French into English. I see the "ou" construction all the time in French and I always translate it with "and" in English by the bye–the construction would have to very clearly indicate an "or" in English for me to translate it thus, and I can't think of any examples where I have indeed felt the need for that. Many thanks for the analysis of intended interpretations and perverse misinterpretations. I don't think I have ever consciously worked out the two (intended and perverse readings) until now though.

  9. mollymooly said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    A certain kind of Irish nationalist, who wants to boast of the River Shannon without using the imperialist toponym "British Isles", is forced to choose between

    "The Shannon is the longest river in Britain and Ireland."


    "The Shannon is the longest river in Britain or Ireland."

    (Googling "Shannon * longest river * Britain * Ireland" finds both.)

    Similarly for Lough Neagh, with the added wrinkle that it is arguably in both Britain and Ireland.

  10. Martha said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 11:54 pm

    To me anyway (and without surrounding context), "The Shannon is the longest river in Britain AND Ireland" makes it sound like it flows through both places.

  11. Nick Lamb said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

    I'm enjoying the juxtaposition of "Weighs less than a couple of energy bars" with "More likely to reach satellites [than the energy bars?]".

    The 5W power is specified by the COSPAS SARSAT 406MHz beacon standard, while your energy bars may not be as likely to reach satellites, comparable standards-compliant beacons probably are. This power increase was possible because 406MHz beacons transmit a digital burst (effectively just "I'm beacon #X" and optionally "I think I'm at GPS co-ordinates Z") periodically once activated whereas their analogue predecessors just "wailed" anonymously at their design power. 5W for 1 second every minute is 5J per minute, whereas 0.1W continuous is 6J per minute.

    Unfortunately since this is an emergency radio system, used across the entire globe, it is difficult to arrange to perform "live" tests and so confirm whether one product is actually better than another, or indeed whether in practice it performs as claimed at all. You won't find a "What locator beacon" magazine with monthly tests of new models, nor Youtube videos of people trying them out for themselves.

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