What is the difference between 'He can’t read or write.' and 'He can't read and wirte.'? Don't both sentences mean same sense? On the English-Korean dictionary, I found that 'He can't read or write' mean 'He can't do both reading and writing.'. As far as I know, 'or' mean 'only one' of many things that connected by 'or'. I'am very confusing!!!

Off-topic but, It's terribly difficult for me to make sentences to ask questions... :-(

1 Answer 1


Normally, when the and is used in this kind of construction, it implies a combined activity. Two things happen either simultaneously or very close in time to each other.

For instance:

Don't drink and drive [at the same time].

I added the text in brackets to make the understanding of the conjunction clearer. This means don't drive immediately after you've been drinking. (Or, in theory, it could also mean don't drink while you're driving.)

If somebody wanted to express the idea that somebody should not drink and also that they should not drive, and in a way where those two things don't have some kind of intrinsic connection to each other, then they would say:

Don't drink or drive.

If and were to be used, the commonly assumed meaning of one thing in relation to the other could be avoided if the verb were not omitted in the second part of the parallel construction:

Don't drink and don't drive.

This explicitly avoids the implication that drinking and driving is a single action (or concept), making it clear that it's two separate things.

So, in your example:

He can't read or write.

This sounds normal. He can neither read nor write.

If the or were to be replaced by and, while still preserving the sense of two completely separate activities, the following would be used:

He can't read and he can't write.

But failing to repeat the verb results in a different interpretation:

He can't read and write [at the same time].

If the final version really were what was intended, it would likely be phrased a bit differently:

He can't read at the same time that he's writing.

  • "Can't read and write" is very common. "If you can't read and write you can't think. " - Ray Bradbury. Apr 13, 2019 at 14:41
  • @MichaelHarvey It may be idiomatic in this particular instance, but it's not a common use of the syntax for such constructions in general. If somebody thought they could always replace can't X or Y with can't X and Y, they would quickly find that they'd be misunderstood. (In those cases where they didn't come across a particular idiomatic usage.) Apr 13, 2019 at 15:00
  • Old UK joke, to understand which, you had to have seen a particular TV advertising campaign: Young boy, in pharmacy: a pack of Tampax please! Assistant: who are they for? Boy: me. Assistant: what do you want them for? Boy: I want to play tennis and ride horses! Apr 13, 2019 at 18:30

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