Are there languages without the ambigous usage of 'and' sometimes meaning 'or'?

There is a construction that I have noticed in media articles both in English and in my native German where ‘and’ in a condition often means ‘or’, the intended meaning left to context and sometimes not precisely determinable.

The ambiguity is between the intersection and the union of two sets.

For example:

‘x women regularly play basketball and tennis in this country’ - can mean ‘and’ or ‘or’, meaning may be clear from context.

‘retirees who go to bed early and wake early’ - probably means ‘and’

‘x Italians spent their holidays in France and Spain last year’ - can mean both (probably means ‘or’)

‘x People drowned on the East and West Coasts in the last decade’ - probably ‘or’ is intended, except when the reference is to a few very unfortunate individuals who were resuscitated the first time.

Are there languages in the usage of which the meaning of ‘x women regularly play basketball and tennis’ is unambiguous?

All of those come down to people not using “and/or” properly (or using other constructs) to indicate non-exclusive sets. The usage is misleading and grammatically incorrect for the statement intended; it is not ambiguous outside of that incorrectness.

Native English speaker here. There’s an aggregation ambiguity. The drowning statement is supposed to mean that X people drowned anywhere in the combined total area of the East Coast plus the West Coast (e.g. California, Oregon, Virginia, Florida, Maine, but NOT Kansas or Wyoming), not that X people drowned on the West Coast and these people also drowned on the East Coast.

Likewise, the women playing sports statement is supposed to mean that X women participated in some way in sports activities that fell under the “basketball and tennis” grouping of activities. It’s inartfully stated.

No, it isn’t. Being ambiguous is not grammatically incorrect; it might be stylistically incorrect, but that’s up to the person or institution promulgating the style guide and not relevant outside that limited context. Human languages serve human purposes, and humans sometimes purpose to be ambiguous.

Latin had two words that we would translate as “or”. One of them, IIRC “vel” means what we might render and/or, called the inclusive or. The mathematical inclusive or is denoted by a symbol that looks like a v and is said to come from vel. The other or in Latin was, again IIRC, “aut” and we call it the exclusive or. Mathematicians usually denote it by +. Computer people call it xor.

The reason I bring it up is that I would guess that if you have those two “or” to use, you will not be tempted to use “and” in the sense of vel, which is what I think happens.

Although it is ambiguous, I think it a serious overreaction to call it a grammatical error. There are lots of ambiguities in natural language and they are not errors. Consider the sentence, “Flying planes can be dangerous.”

Time flies like an arrow.

Fruit flies like a banana.

Hello Mops,
Can we have that question again, in English please.
Unless I’ve forgotten nearly 50 years of English, methinks there may be an unusual translation from German to English.
This is also a reason why I don’t meander to German language websites.


Huh?! His English is a lot better than that of many of the people posting questions here. What part of it is hard to understand?

That’s the most common meaning - ‘x women regularly play basketball and tennis in this country’ meaning ‘x women regularly play basketball or tennis’.

But, e.g. in ‘x women regularly play basketball and tennis in this country. As a result of the different strains on the wrist’s tendons in both sports they are at risk of the debilitating Basketball Tennis Wrist Syndrome (BTWS)’ the meaning would be ‘basketball and tennis’.