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a. He will give his life for Tom or Pete.

b. He will give his life for Tom and Pete.

Does (b) mean the same as (a)?

It seems ambiguous to me. I think it can mean the same as (a) and it can also mean that he will give his life to save both Tom and Pete, but not to save only one of them.

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    Your second interpretation is so unlikely that I can't imagine anyone interpreting (b) in that way. Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 9:25
  • In B, he values his life more :) Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 9:43
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    It becomes clear if you change the elements: He will pay a dime for an apple or an orange. He will pay a dime for an apple and an orange. Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 10:03

3 Answers 3

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Pragmatically there would be no difference in meaning.

I'm not going to try to pick apart the sematics of "and" and "or", but simply note that the choice to "give one's life" is not done in a rational or calculating manner. A person who would die for either would die for both. A person who'd die for both would die for either.

In this I'm really only considering the meaning of "give his life" and the pragmatic effect that has on the interpretation of the whole sentence.

However even with a less dramatic sentence

He would buy candy for Tom and Pete [Tom or Pete].

Would be understood to mean either both together or separately.

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Sentence (a) does carry the same semantic meaning as sentence (b) although it is possible that they carry differing implications.

Sentence (a) means

  1. he will give his life for Tom alone; or
  2. he will give his life for Pete alone;

and it probably means that

  1. he will give his life for Tom and Pete together.

Sentence (b) means that

  1. he will give his life for Tom and Pete together;

and it probably means that

  1. he will give his life for Tom alone; or
  2. he will give his life for Pete alone.

Yet the sentences have implications that are not explicit:

  1. Sentence (a) might mean that he will not give his life for Tom and Pete together;

  2. sentence (b) might mean that he will not give his life either for Tom alone or for Pete alone.

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You could make the meanings different (as a joke) by saying, “I would give my life for Tom and Pete—but only for both of them,” or “I would give my life for Tom or Pete—but not both.” Or, “Sorry, Tom, I meant Pete.”

These are technically possible readings of the statement, but they’d be considered deceptive. They’re the kind of ambiguity that can cause lawsuits.

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