By Ian Pisarcik, Legal Publications Attorney Editor
Lodged somewhere between income disparity and climate change on the list of greatest threats facing the nation is the use of and/or. I am kidding of course. But on any given afternoon you are likely to encounter one of our editors groping the wall muttering “say what you mean, say what you mean” in response to the unhinged use of this expression. It’s not just persnickety editors that have trouble with the expression¾okay, mostly it is, but the courts don’t like it either! The expression is responsible for two of the most biting lines ever written in an opinion:
[T]hat befuddling, nameless thing, that Janus-faced verbal monstrosity, neither word nor phrase, the child of a brain of someone too lazy or too dull to express his precise meaning, or too dull to know what he did mean, now commonly used by lawyers in drafting legal documents, through carelessness or ignorance or as a cunning device to conceal rather than express meaning with view to furthering the interest of their clients.
Employers’ Mut. Liab. Ins. Co. of Wisconsin v. Tollefsen, 219 Wis 434, 263 NW 376, 377 (1935).
It is one of those inexcusable barbarisms which were sired by indolence and dammed by indifference, and has no more place in legal terminology than the vernacular of Uncle Remus has in Holy Writ. I am unable to divine how such senseless jargon becomes current. The coiner of it certainly had no appreciation for terse and concise law English.
Cochrane v. Florida E. Coast Ry. Co., 107 Fla 431, 435, 145 So 217 (1932).
The problem isn’t that and/or has no meaning; it does (one or the other or both). The problem is that it is ambiguous at best and flat-out wrong at worst. As Bryan Garner puts it, “about half the time, and/or really means or; about half the time, it means and.” For example, if a sign says “no food or drink allowed,” it certainly doesn’t mean that you can have both.
So how do you avoid this problem? The answer, as the muttering editor will tell you, is to simply say what you mean. If you mean or, say or; if you mean and, say and; if you mean one or the other or both, say just that. For example, the defendant may be charged with unlawful arrest or malicious prosecution, or both.
Otherwise, you will continue to risk the wrath of judges or attorney editors, or both.