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Just to make sure: isn't this an erroneous use of or?

More recently, concerns have been raised that HGT from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could have adverse effects (Pontiroli et al., 2007). HGT of an introduced gene in a GMO may confer a novel trait in another organism, which could be a source of potential harm to the health of people or the environment. For example, the transfer of antibiotic resistance genes to a pathogen has the potential to compromise human or animal therapy (Bennett et al., 2004), transfer of a viral gene to a non-homologous virus may result in an emerging disease (Falk and Bruening, 1994) or gene transfer to humans has been controversially proposed as a potential trigger for oncogenesis (Ho et al., 2000).

(From "Risks from GMOs due to Horizontal Gene Transfer", by Paul Keese)

P.S. It's hard to formulate why exactly, but it continues to look erroneous to me, although of course I believe J.R. In Russian, such a sentence would be considered erroneous. The minimal solution to make it less wrecked would be to cross out "or" and put "and" in its place. And a comma before "and", of course.

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    What makes you think this is erroneous? What error do you perceive? Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 10:46
  • @StoneyB - it's hard to formulate why exactly, but it continues to look errouneous to me, although of course I believe J.R. In Russian, such a sentence would be considered erroneous. The minimal solution to make it less wrecked would be to cross out "or" and put "and" in its place. And a comma before "and", of course. Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 11:25
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    I've addressed this in my Answer. May I suggest that you incorporate your objection in the question itself? Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 11:41

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This use of or rather than and is quite common and quite proper. You will notice that this author is careful to hedge every proposition he puts forward. He doesn't want to give the impression that the dangers he lists are probable events with a cumulative effect, like this:

This may happen, and that may happen, and the other may happen, too!

He rather asks us to consider these dangers as possibilities, each independent of the others—any one of them may come to pass:

This may happen, or that may happen, or the other may happen.

And in this context or puts forward a very different rhetorical strategy. Each of the dangers has a small chance of occurring—let's say, just for the sake of argument, 2%. The probability that all three will happen (A and B and C) is vanishingly small: 2% × 2% × 2* = .0008%. But the chance that at least one will happen (A or B or C) is increasingly large: 2% + 2% + 2% = 6%.

You are, however, quite right in suggesting that the or should be preceded by a comma, to make the structure clear.

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    Pedantry: 2% + 2% + 2% = 6% holds only if the events are mutually exclusive. I might order water 50% and order tea 50% of the time, but that doesn't mean that I order water or tea 100% of the time; it could be that sometimes I order both, so those 50%s are overlapping. Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 19:19
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There is a violation of parallelism in the verbal structure which goes from active to passive voice (has the potential ... may result...has been proposed as). Nothing to do with "or", however; the "or" may actually be an attempt to compensate for, or announce, the shift in voice.

Here's how I'd fix it:

... — or as has been controversially proposed, gene transfer may trigger oncogenesis.

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  • So much this. @StoneyB is certainly correct about the choice of or but it’s important to note that there is something “off” about the sentence.
    – KRyan
    Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 2:50
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Nope, not erroneous at all. It's essentially a list of three examples, set up by the preceding sentence or paragraph, which you initially omitted, but then wisely included after your edit.

I'll write something using a similar structure:

An English learner stands to gain several possible benefits from frequenting ELL. For example, an answer might provide new insights, a comment might clarify a confusing issue, or a question from the learner could be answered by a native speaker or knowledgable learner.

The flow of your excerpt is a little harder to follow, though, because it's very technical material. The parenthetical references don't help, either, as they interrupt the flow of the sentence. But the or is entirely appropriate.

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