August 6, 2007

And/Or

NPR broadcast a typically brief report on an Iraqi bombing this morning. “Most of the victims,” listeners were told, “were women and children.” I doubt that many people gave the report a second thought, both because it was a now-standard “dog-bites-man” story and because the grammatical absurdity of the sentence is subtle. It got my attention, however.

What the correspondent should have said was that most of the victims were women or children, since, in standard American English, being a women and being a child are mutually exclusive. Apropos of how women are treated in Islamic societies, reformers might argue that this dichotomy is not so sharp in Iraq, but I doubt that the NPR reporter was trying to make a sociological point.

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