On Seeing an Ambiguous “Or” in a Toronto Handwashing Notice

While in Toronto last week I couldn’t help but admire, from the standpoint of graphic design and engaged municipal government, the timely yellow-and-white notice about handwashing that was posted in all restrooms.

But those who attend my seminars will be aware that the one subject that has had me in a cold sweat more than any other is the ambiguity associated with and and or. The result is that I’m rather paranoid about it.

The handwashing notice says, among other things, exactly when you should wash your hands. While dutifully washing my own hands, I couldn’t help but observe that the notice says that you should wash your hands before and after you “Prepare or eat food.” So, I said to myself, does that mean I would still be complying with the recommendations if I were to say to myself, “OK, I’ll wash my hands when I eat food, but not when I prepare it”? That obviously isn’t the intended meaning, but if you’re sensitized to the ambiguous or, you can spot it in all sorts of places.

And changing the or to and would simply allow the reader to say, “OK, so I don’t need to wash my hands when I just prepare food, or just eat it, as opposed to when I engage in both activities with respect to any given food.”

Toronto Public Health could have put or paranoiacs out of their misery by having “Prepare food” and “Eat food” as separate bullet points. But as MSCD 10.69 points out, it’s unreasonable to expect to be able to eliminate all ambiguity associated with and or or. Any writer is entitled to assume a rational reader, and no reasonable person would understand the handwashing notice as conveying the alternative meaning that I spotted.

But the stakes are higher in the case of contract language, which, because it regulates conduct, is limited and stylized and is subject to greater scrutiny. When drafting a contract I’d go the extra mile to avoid an ambiguous or.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

8 thoughts on “On Seeing an Ambiguous “Or” in a Toronto Handwashing Notice”

  1. Ken, I know you have a thing about and/or, but that does seem to be an obvious solution here — not to mention an example of the useful evolution of language, which like the Sabbath was made to serve [hu]man[ity], not [hu]man[ity] the language.

  2. D.C.: Compared with the judges and legal-writing commentators who have fulminated over and/or, I’m relatively open-minded: and/or has its uses, but usually I can come up with something that’s simpler and clearer. (See MSCD 10.56.)

    In this case, given that no reasonable reader could possibly opt for my alternative reading, I wouldn’t want to muck up the concision of the notice by adding an and/or.

    Depending on the context, in a contract I’d probably use the same approach—I’d put “prepare food” and “eat food” in separate enumerated clauses. Another standard alternative to and/or, namely using the structure A or B or both, would be cumbersome—”eat food or prepare food, or both.”

    But if the elements joined by or were sufficiently cumbersome, I’d have no qualms about using and/or.


  3. How about “before and after you prepare food and before and after you eat food.” Yes, it is more wordy but I think it clearly gets the point across without any ambiguity. While such precision is not imperative in a simple sign, I agree that it is appropriate in contract drafting.

    Regards, David

  4. David: Your suggestion wouldn’t work in the context of the notice, because “before and after” precedes the bullet points. Ken

  5. I think I agree that it is impossible to completely eliminate the ambiguity without destroying a contract. Even “and/or” here, if you wanted to be a robot about it, doesn’t entirely fix it – if you can interpret a plain “or” as giving the reader a choice regarding “preparing” and “eating”, then “and/or” can be intepreted as giving the reader a choice regarding “and” and “or” – the reader can choose “or”, and then choose between “preparing” and “eating”.

    Which is clearly absurd and would be an outrageous line for a court to take – but then, given the context, I think that it would be fairly outrageous for a court to interpret “or” as giving the reader a choice between “preparing” and “eating” in this case.

  6. Art – I do not understand your point. And/or would include the “or” interpretation you mentioned, but would not make that the exclusive use of and/or. The reader has the obligation in all instances of the “and/or” combination, not the choice to pick an “or” then ignore the rest.

    The English language needs to evolve to include a new word that lawyers will use in every contract. I suggest “anor” for the future of and/or.

  7. Art, Jason: I agree that Art perhaps misunderstands and/or. A and/or B means A or B or both, so I don’t see the confusion that Art mentions.

    But I see no future for anor.



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