Saturday, May 14, 2011

Don’t be oblique

Brooker: patron saint of bile
Charlie Brooker is a kind of modern-day saint. I bought his book The Hell Of It All at last year’s Edinburgh festival (I didn't have to go to Scotland to buy it. I just happened to be there). Anyway, I embarrassed myself on the train home (for the umpteenth time that week) by laughing like a banker receiving his bonus at the sentence, “The camera doesn’t capture the next bit, where he runs behind a bush and virtually blasts his own pelvis through his arse during a spectacular anal evacuation.” It was when my nose came out in sympathy that I lost the last shred of dignity remaining from that never-to-be-forgotten week.
Yet Brooker irritated me with the following construction:
"Too lacking in imagination and/or basic human empathy to comprehend the instinctive primal reaction spiders provoke in genuine sufferers, they blather idiotic platitudes like ‘It’s more scared of you’…"
Now, you might not see a lot wrong with that, but he has made an error that is so prevalent that it is even heard in spoken English: “and-stroke-or”. It came up again twice today, firstly in a piece I was editing:
"Freight rates remained weak/flat in West of Suez markets."
…and then in an otherwise admirable piece in The Guardian by Amanda Marcotte:
"There’s a tipping point where preening displays of masculinity get so overt and stereotypical that they stop being intimidating and/or boorish and move into the territory of erotically charged camp."
Now, pay attention. I’m only going to say this five or six times. An oblique sign is not punctuation. 
No it isn’t.
It’s not.
Shut up. You’re wrong. It really isn’t. Switch off the music and concentrate. An oblique sign is not punctuation. 
Torres: five goals short of a semi-colon
Commas are punctuation. Full stops (periods if you’re American) are punctuation. Semi-colons? You betcha. You’re even allowed en-dashes (or em-dashes if you’re American). Obliques, on the other hand, are like Fernando Torres in a Chelsea shirt: they can huff and puff all they like but they can’t do the job because they’re not the real thing. (Sorry, no American analogy is available this time. If you can think of one, please feel free to email me on

Saveloy: effective in a 4-4-2 behind Drogba
Stop and think (not “stop or think”). You’re either offering two things together or you’re offering an option. Decide which it is and then choose “and” or “or” as appropriate. Even if the option is “this, that or both”, your readers will usually know which you mean. For example, there’s a shop near where I live offering “Fish & Chips” (fries if you’re American), and I can pretty much guarantee that no-one goes into the shop thinking that they’re compelled to have chips if they order fish. They know they can have either, or both, or a saveloy.
So, Brooker, you can take your oblique and stick up your colon, obliquely if you prefer. I’m surprised your sub-editor didn’t do it for you. You could have said, “too lacking in imagination or basic human empathy”. Would that have hurt?
So, un-named tanker correspondent, were rates weak or flat? There, I’ve given you the answer already. Some were weak and some were flat.
It does depend on the context, but if you’re really not sure which to use, try using “or” and adding the word “either” and see if it works. You can take it out again afterwards. We often do. 
So, does “either lacking in imagination or basic human empathy” work? Of course it does. “Or” can be exclusive but it doesn’t have to be. Some lack imagination, some lack empathy and some lack both.

“Rates were weak or flat.” Here it is clearly exclusive. Some were weak and some were flat. 

“Preening displays of masculinity… stop being intimidating or boorish.” Some were intimidating and others were boorish, but some could have been both.
The fun-loving “or” is flexible and broad-minded enough to carry most alternatives without being shackled to the more strait-laced “and”. A forward slash is a sign that the writer hasn't properly worked out what he wants to say.

Moral: “And” or “Or”? Stop, take a deep breath and decide which one you mean. Then use it.
Tip: If you can’t make up your mind, you probably mean “or”.


  1. I'm not sure about the tone of your post, but I agree with your assessment. I have the same attitude about slashes and "and/or," but I just don't express it. Both are used to impress rather than express a message.

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