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According to Andreas Ulrich and Alfred Weinzierl, "German Trainers Describe Pitiful State of Afghan Police", Der Spiegel, 4/7/2010:

A functioning police force is seen as a prerequisite for a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan. German trainers, however, paint a disastrous picture of the quality of Afghan security forces. Too many police, they say, can't read or write, can't shoot straight or take bribes.

Reader SK writes:

Good lord! Do we have to teach these guys how to do EVERYTHING? Can't read, can't write, can't shoot straight — don't even know how to take BRIBES! You put your left hand out, and you shake it all about. I ask you, what's this world coming to?


  1. D.O. said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    Well, the question is whether Taliban fighters can do any of this.

  2. Mark P said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

    For some reason it doesn't surprise me that German trainers can't teach them to take bribes. Maybe they need to send in trainers from another country. I would suggest one, but I'm afraid I would offend someone.

  3. Peter Harvey said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    I don't see a problem:

    Too many police …
    a) can't read or write,
    b) can't shoot straight
    c) take bribes.

    To get the meaning it is being given it would have to be:

    Too many police … can't read or write, and can't shoot straight or take bribes.

    Whether the 'or' should be an 'and' is a different matter.

  4. Goplat said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    This is why lists with 3 or more items need to have commas between ALL of them, including the last two. "can't read or write, can't shoot straight, or take bribes" would have been unambiguous.

  5. Will said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

    @Peter: It's actually frequently stylistically appropriate to omit the conjunction in sentence structures like that, because it makes for a more rhythmic pronunciation. In fact, I'm pretty sure the most standard meaning of a list of the form "A or B, C or D" is generally understood to be "A or B or C or D".

    I just randomly chose some sequences of this form, and many of the top results on google all agree with the interpretation I proposed:

    If the character isn't showing anger or love, fear or hatred, rewrite the scene so she does.

    I too would gladly pay whatever additional pennies or nickels, dimes or dollars in order that more could participate.

    Hue is the name of a color, that is, red or green, blue or orange.

    It's about real people and their love for their dogs or cats, birds or fish, gerbils or guinea pigs, newts or iguanas or, well, you name it.

  6. MattF said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    A different order would have been unambiguous– 'Too many police take bribes, can't shoot straight, or can't read or write'. It's of interest to note that the rearranged version would not be misread as 'Too many police… write'.

  7. Will said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    @Goplat, this is a mildly pedantic point, but "can't read or write, can't shoot straight, or take bribes" has problems because the list items are of different phrasal types — it would be "can't read or write, shoot straight, or take bribes" OR "can't read or write, can't shoot straight, and can't take bribes".

    But your main point stands — I've never quite understood the idea that's okay to leave off the final comma in a list. It's both illogical and has the potential to cause ambiguity. At the very least makes it not quite as easy to parse.

  8. John Cowan said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    Omitting the final ("Oxford") comma is, at least in the U.S., basically only done in newspapers, where it is supposedly a matter of saving space. I think it's just inertia, really.

    Elsewhere in the Anglosphere it's a matter of reducing punctuation to an absolute minimum period.

  9. Nik said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    I agree with Strunk and White's "comma except the last". So one, two, three, or four.

    The language "or" seems to take the meaning of "it can be that either one condition can be true but only that one is true, the other can't be true at the same time" As in "Red pill or blue pill". "life or death".

    The computer "or" (logical) can be either or both.

    If English is distributive, then "can't (read or write)" = "can't read or can't write" But must not be both. Unfortunately there's only one word "or" to try to take the roles of both logical or and the exclusive disjunction or. I guess the the author OBVIOUSLY does not mean to say some can read, some can write, but thankfully never both at the same time. He means to say, only some can read, only some can write, most can't do either.

    So that's the logical one. In my humble opinion, to simulate a logical "or" in my everyday exclusive "or", I add ", or a combination of the above"

    "We don't know how he got better, maybe it's the diet, the exercise, the pills, or a combination of the above"

  10. Will said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

    @Nik, the idea that language's "or" is an exclusive or is a myth. It only seems that way because a lot of the times the options are semantically irreconcilable. "Life or death" is exclusive not because the "or" is exclusive, but because one cannot be both dead and alive (unless you count zombies). For a better discussion about this by a language log author, see this post:

  11. Nik said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    I see. I don't think that the English "or" is and is only "XOR", the exclusive "or", I denote. But that it is being employed in both operation sometimes in the same sentence that's problematic. So..
    "life xor death"

    Even if we really had the word "xor", without parentheses, some meaning still will be carried out ambiguously. Simply put, we use these operators (or & xor) between items, but what if within these items, there are operators, too?

    You can change order to make it work only if you have two items. If there are three, items that aren't in the first position of the chain can't escape the distribution from what's in front of them. Make any sense?

  12. Peter Harvey said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    I actually read that sentence on the Spiegel site the other day and it didn't jar at all. It was only when I read the message here that I set about analysing it.

  13. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

    "I dedicate this book to my parents, Pope John XXIII and Mother Theresa."

    Howzat for ambiguity?

  14. fs said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    @Dan Lufkin: I believe the standard example is "my parents, Ayn Rand and God" :P

    @Will: your post is a great demonstration of the misreading that is possible for this sentence. The writer is saying that too many police [DO] take bribes, not that too many police CAN'T take bribes. All three phrases in the list "can't read or write, can't shoot straight, or take bribes" are verb phrases. Too many police can't read or write. Too many police can't shoot straight. Too many police take bribes.

  15. Brett said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

    @Will- I once agreed with you that there was no truly exclusive "or" in English. However, I came across some examples (in a topology book!) that proved otherwise. For example, "You will get at least a 60 or you will fail this class."

  16. fs said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    @Brett: That's not really an exclusive or, as it's not symmetric – "You will get at least a 60 or you will fail this class." means something rather different (and more sensical) than "You will fail this class or you will get at least a 60". It's more of an implication, really.

  17. James said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

    I don't think that's an example of an exclusive 'or', Brett. Suppose a student gets a 60 but is caught cheating, and therefore fails. This does not falsify the statement. Right?
    The information the student gets from the statement is that in any case in which s/he doesn't get a 60, she fails. Which is the information you get from an inclusive 'or'.

  18. Will said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

    @fs: Actually, I correctly understood the original sentence when I read it. I only got around to mis-stating it when I got to analyzing sentence structure, at which point I stopped paying attention to the meanings of the words. Of course, looking at the words as semantic components again, it's obvious that Goplat had it right to begin with. Thanks for pointing that out.

  19. Peter McAndrew said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

    Nik: "If English is distributive, then "can't (read or write)" = "can't read or can't write" But must not be both. Unfortunately there's only one word "or" to try to take the roles of both logical or and the exclusive disjunction or."

    Of course, the interpretation within standard logic is that "NOT (read OR write)" = "(NOT read) AND (NOT write)"

  20. James Wimberley said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

    The natural way a lot of us would disambiguate complicated conjunctions, conditionals and disjunctions in a fomnal context is with nested indents. Thus:
    ¨Too many Afghan police
    – …..– can't read
    …….– AND/OR can´t write
    – AND/OR can't shoot straight
    – AND/OR take bribes.¨
    It´s very easy to get hung up without indents; see any badly drafted piece of legislation.

  21. Dierk said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 2:46 am

    Natural English 'or' = logical OR

    To get XOR you use 'either … or' [natural language 'either … or' = logical XOR].

    Same holds true for German 'oder' and 'entweder … oder'.

    Oh, for a practising writer the solution should be to re-order the items, putting 'take bribes' at the beginning. Otherwise SPON could just rely on some 8th graders to write up their stories [which, I guess, many publications already do].

  22. Peter Taylor said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 3:57 am

    Another one, from today's Times:

    “We’ve still got a long way to go,” the pint-sized sailor wrote on her blog after celebrating her arrival in Australian waters with Vegemite on crackers and a lunch of garlic prawns and squid which had washed up onto the deck of her yacht.

    I assume that the garlic prawns didn't wash up onto the deck of the yacht, but I'm not entirely certain.

  23. empty said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 6:46 am

    Dierk: Either I'm very confused or the combination "Either … or" does not have to mean xor.

  24. lukas said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    I think this escaped the authors (German native speakers, presumably) because the ambiguity is absent in the word-by-word German equivalent of the phrase in question, "…oder nehmen Bestechungsgelder an." An interesting case of cross-linguistic influence.

  25. Dierk said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 8:55 am


    Depends on the direction.

    If we want to express XOR in natural language go with 'either … or'. If you want to express 'either … or' the way you used it [which I would avoid] then XOR would be wrong. You are right, the relationship I provided is not one of identity [triple bar], only of equivalence.

    Let's be clear, greater logicians than me stumbled over the problem to define natural language expressions unambiguously by way of logical languages. Heck, they failed to define mathematics as a subset of logic.

  26. Alex said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    Ah, attachment, so sweet, so low…

  27. Peter Harvey said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    @lukas. Spiegel has an English-language version of its web site, which I read frequently. Articles written in German are translated and this one is, as they usually are, credited at the end to Christopher Sultan. Allowing for the speed with which these translations have to be done, he does a good job. I agree that a serial comma would eliminate any possible ambiguity but, as I have said, I think the sentence is valid as it is.

    The English version of the article is here:

  28. Arlie Davis said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    This would all be so much simpler if we would invent short pronunciations for ( and ).

  29. chris said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    Regarding Peter Taylor's example, I'm not sure I'd like to eat a lunch that washed up onto the deck of anyone's yacht.

  30. Stephen Jones said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    ….',and take bribes' would give the correct meaning.

    What is needed is to make it clear that the 'can't ….,can't' is not governed by the 'or' but that the opposition is between two things, 'take bribes' and 'can't shoot straight or can't read and write'.

    The most elegant way is 'take bribes or can't shoot straight or read and write'.

  31. Stephen Jones said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    Mind you ',and take bribes', would state all of them take bribes, which while doubtlessly true might not have been what the speaker intended.

  32. Ben G said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

    It seems like the biggest problem here is the parallel structure between "can't read or write" and "can't shoot straight or take bribes." Regardless of the exact meaning of "or" in English, readers are trained to construe two adjacent clauses with identical syntax identically. Because the intended meaning of "can't read or write" is obvious, it's only natural for a reader to assume that "can't shoot straight or take bribes" is meant in the same way.

    Although the similar sentence, "Too many police, they say, can't shoot straight or take bribes," suffers from nearly all of the same syntactic issues as the original, it is much clearer, in large part because the author has not provided a faulty template for interpreting the "or."

  33. Morten Jonsson said,

    April 13, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    @Ben G: I don't think that similar sentence is clearer at all. If anything, it says even more explicitly what it doesn't mean to. The problem with the original sentence isn't just the false parallelism between the two clauses. It's that the most obvious way to read that one clause, "can't shoot straight or take bribes," happens to be the wrong one.

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