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Consider these sentences:

(1) We don't want to "force" or "impose" any outcome on you.

(2) We don't want to "force"—or "impose"—any outcome on you.

(3) Nothing will be "forced" or "imposed" on anyone.

(4) Nothing will be "forced"—or "imposed"—on anyone.

(2) and (4) have em-dashes in order to ensure a particular meaning in which the two verbs (in quotation marks) are interchangeable. But are the em-dashes completely unnecessary? Does syntax already impose this logical relation (of interchangeability)?

Consider (1). The first verb (in quotation marks) might be intransitive, right? This would be unusual but not impossible. And there might be other ambiguities too; that's just one ambiguity that I noticed. The em-dashes would eliminated that ambiguity. 

Original Post

Hi, Andrew—How to force the equivalence reading of "or" is a punctuation topic that I myself have thought about numerous times.

First of all, the passive–active distinction cannot be exploited to overcome the different readings of "or." Thus, your four approaches collapse into two.

Sentences (1) and (3) will likely be misunderstood unless your intention to have the equivalence reading is already presupposed by your audience.

Sentences (2) and (4) have a better chance of receiving the equivalence reading of "or," and the em dashes aren't needed; they can be replaced with commas.

However, even (2) and (4) can be misunderstood. The only way to truly force the equivalence reading, in my opinion, is to use a comma after "or" as well.

  • We don't want to force, or, impose, any outcome on you.
  • We don't want to force (or, impose) any outcome on you.
  • We don't want to force—or, impose—any outcome on you.

I dispensed with the quotation-mark clutter. Consider the punctuation Herman Melville used in the original title page of Moby-Dick. A comma follows "or."

Moby Dick


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  • Moby Dick
Last edited by David, Moderator

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