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Or or And in Negative Sentences?

July 25, 2013

"Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education…"

—Charlotte Brontë

The idea for this post came to me when I was editing some materials on likes and dislikes. In those lessons, sentences such as I don’t like tomatoes, and I don’t like celery, either were used. In this case, and is used, but I remembered how or must often be used in negative sentences such as I don’t like tomatoes or celery.

This used to confuse my students so much! They’d naturally want to write I don’t like tomatoes and celery, because they didn’t like both things. This kind of question always appears in tests like the TOEIC as well. So how do we explain it to students?

Or = not joining independent clauses

In English, or is used in negative sentences to join two or more nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, dependent clauses, etc. To recognize a negative sentence in English, look for adverbs such as not or never.

Trick #1

Tell students that if not is used once, they will most likely need or.

  • I don’t like apples or oranges.
  • English isn’t quick or easy to learn.
  • My friend doesn’t want pork, beef, or fish for dinner.
  • He never reads books or watches TV after class.
  • I didn’t say that you could eat my food or that your friends could come over.

Trick #2

It might help to tell students to think of the full conjunction pairs of both…and and either…or.

  • She likes (both) apples and oranges.
  • She doesn’t like (either) apples or oranges. (We would never say She doesn’t like either apples and oranges.)

And = joining independent clauses

In English, and is used in negative sentences to join two independent clauses.

Trick #3

Tell students that if not is used twice, they will most likely need and.

  • I don’t like basketball, and I don’t like volleyball, either.
  • Mr. Lutz doesn’t want to meet today and he doesn’t want to meet tomorrow, either.

Point out to your students that while these constructions are possible, they’re quite long and cumbersome, and native speakers often prefer the shorter versions with or (I don’t like basketball or volleyball; Mr. Lutz doesn’t want to meet today or tomorrow.)

Exceptions

Exception #1

We can use and when it’s not joining independent clauses to show that the items are joined (act as one unit—e.g., peanut butter and jelly). To avoid confusion, I recommend only pointing this out to higher-level students. Compare the difference:

  • I don’t like peanut butter or jelly. (I don’t like peanut butter. I don’t like jelly.)
  • I don’t like peanut butter and jelly. (I don’t like peanut butter and jelly together, but I might like them separately.)

Exception #2

Don’t forget that even though words such as hate or dislike have a negative meaning, not isn’t used, so and is used to join two or more parts of speech.

  • I dislike apples and oranges. (I dislike apples or oranges is incorrect.)
  • She hates rain and snow. (She hates rain or snow is incorrect.)

I hope your students aren’t confused or defeated by these conjunctions anymore!

Tanya

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Comments (73)

neide (Guest)

Very clarifying! Tks!

Reply to Comment

Tracey F.(Teacher)

Very enlightening. It's funny the things we just do naturally, often without being taught, and don't recognise in our own language until they're pointed out. Very helpful and interesting.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks, Neide and Tracey! And it's very true...I learned so much about English when I started teaching it. We're not usually aware of all the grammar rules in our own language until we have to explain them to someone else.

Reply to Comment

laogui (Guest)

I was correcting an entry at italki.com, in which the (Chinese) student had written '... without electronic toys and smartphones' and asked why I had corrected her 'and' to 'or', was it because of the 'without' and yes of course it was; but how to express this as a rule of grammar, and how many such words are there?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Laogui,

You bring up a very good point. English has other negative words besides the usual 'not' and 'never'. The rule remains the same, though: Use 'or', not 'and', if there is a negative word in the sentence (that refers to the items being joined). Other such words include no, none, nothing, either, and, as you mentioned, without. I'm sure there are more, but that's all that are coming to me at the moment. If anyone can think of words to add to this list, please leave a comment! :)

hamid (Guest)

what about 'nor'?
do you think that we should use 'nor' with negative sentences ?

I don't like apples nor oranges

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Good question, Hamid! You can use 'nor' in negative sentences, but remember that it's quite formal and not commonly used nowadays. When you use 'nor' you almost always use 'neither', and you will NEVER use 'not'. Think of the 'n' in the words 'neither' and 'nor' as already having the meaning of 'not'.

All of the following examples have the same meaning. #1 is the most common and #3 is the least common.

  1. I don't like apples or oranges.
  2. I don't like either apples or oranges.
  3. I like neither apples nor oranges.

Hope that helps!
Tanya :)

wing (Guest)

thank you very much for this. It is very helpful. Can the same rule apply to positive sentences? For example, is it correct to say, 'I like apples or oranges'?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Wing,

Good question! No, it's not possible to use 'or' for a positive sentence when you mean 'both.' In positive sentences, 'or' is used for a CHOICE.

Examples:
- Which do you prefer, apples or oranges?
- Do you like apples or oranges better?
- Do you want apples or oranges for dessert?

The answer will only be one of the two nouns.
Hope that helps! :)

Niloo (Guest)

Good..thanks
I was confused..thanks for your good description

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    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    You're very welcome, Niloo!

    Nina (Guest)

    Thanks. That's very helpful.
    However, I do have some situation here:
    1. She doesn't have a diary and an address book, but has some pens in her bag.
    2. She doesn't have a diary or an address book, but has some pens in her bag.
    Can I say both sentences are correct? And how can I explain that both sentences are acceptable in what context, please?
    I hope I'm not asking an invalid question.

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Nina,

    No questions are ever invalid! I'm glad you asked this one, because it can be confusing.

    Grammatically speaking, your second sentence with 'or' is correct ('She doesn't have a diary or an address book, but she has some pens in her bag.') The meaning is that she doesn't have a diary and she doesn't have an address book. (Note that I've added a second 'she' because it is more common to include a subject after a comma, especially with a switch from negative to positive.)

    The first sentence doesn't sound as good. Native speakers naturally use 'or' with negative sentences, although some people can and do easily make this mistake. It's not a huge problem because the meaning is clear (and the meaning would be the same as the second sentence, that she doesn't have a diary and she doesn't have an address book). However, I wouldn't teach that first sentence to my students.

    Hope that helps! :)

    PPP (Guest)

    Great article. One concern: all your examples occur in the predicate. Do your tricks apply to the subject? And does this affect the subject/verb agreement? Can the following sentence be improved without using the formal 'nor'?:

    John or Mike isn't coming to the party.

    Thanks!

    Reply to Comment

    PPP (Guest)

    Ah, thanks for the extra help!

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Good question! The rules above do not apply to the subject of a sentence. So your example, 'John or Mike isn't coming to the party' is not correct. Instead, we could say:

    Neither John nor Mike is coming to the party.
    or
    John and Mike aren't coming to the party.

    To help students with subject-verb agreement, tell them to think of it as 'neither ONE of them IS coming' for the first example, and 'THEY ARE not coming' for the second. Thanks for your question!

    Mitsu (Guest)

    Q1 「臨床症状として、息切れ、喀血、胸痛、水泡音は認められなかった。」の英訳のうち、
    医薬文書として最もふさわしいものは以下1~3のどれか。
    (Which sentence among 1 to 4 is the best one for a official medical document in order to mean as below?
    '[Findings for] Clinical symptoms:
    Shortness of breath: none
    Hemoptysis: none
    Chest pain: none
    Rhonchi: none')

    1. Clinical symptoms including shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, and rhonchi were not noted.

    2. No clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, and rhonchi were noted.

    3. No clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, or rhonchi were noted.

    4. Any clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, and rhonchi were not noted.

    5. Any clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, or rhonchi were not noted.

    Q2. Q1 の選択肢 2 において、「息切れ、喀血、胸痛、水泡音」が同格とならず、「No」が「symptoms」と「rhonchi」にかかるように読める可能性はあるか。
    (In the sentence '2' of Q1 items, can 4 words of 'shortness of breath', 'hemoptysis', 'chest pain', and 'rhonchi'
    be regarded as not in the same rank, like a sentence saying 'No clinical symptoms or rhonchi were noted.' ?)

    Q3. Q1 の選択肢 3 において、「息切れ、喀血、胸痛」が認められず、「水泡音」が認められた、と読める可能性はあるか。
    (In the sentence '3' of Q1 items, can the sentence be regarded as 'present: shortness of breath, hemoptysis, and chest pain; none: rhonchi' ?)

    Q4. Q1 の選択肢 1 において、「including」を使用してもよいか、また、「of」よりもふさわしいといえるか。
    (In the sentence '1' of Q1 items, is the use of word 'including' correct? Is it better than 'of'?)

    I beg you will sympathize with me, and it would be extremely appreciated if you give me a helpful advice.
    Sincerest regards,

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Mitsu,

    A1. Sentences 1 and 3 are both correct. I think sentence 3 sounds the best ('No clinical symptoms of shortness of breath, hemoptysis, chest pain, or rhonchi were noted.'). Note that sentences 2, 4, and 5 don't sound natural, in my opinion.

    A2. I'd say that sentence 2 reads the same as sentence 3, but the 'and' sounds like an error to me.

    A3. No. Sentence 3 reads as 'All four of these symptoms were not present.' So there were no symptoms of shortness of breath / no symptoms of hemoptysis / no symptoms of chest pain / no symptoms of rhonchi. If this is your meaning, sentence 3 works well.

    A4. Yes, 'including' sounds natural in sentence 1 and sounds better than 'of,' especially because you wouldn't want to have 'of' twice so close together ('Clinical symptoms OF shortness OF breath...').

    Hope that helps!

    Sandy (Guest)

    Hi, I would just like to ask is this part of this statement 'provided that the member is not i default of this agreement and subject to the terms and conditions there of,...'

    I understand you're not a lawyer and I'm not asking you for legal advice this is not and I understand that you cannot give me legal advice. A lot of people a lot of people do not understand and they get confused by this part of the statement. I say that the 'not' in the sentence applies to the part of the sentence before the 'and' and the part of the sentence after the 'and'.

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Sandy,

    Yes, please don't take this reply as legal advice. You are correct that your example sentence would be read by most people the way you described, with the 'not' applying only to the part of the sentence before the 'and.' So provided that the member is not in default of this agreement and provided that the member is subject to the terms...'

    Ghiaath (Guest)

    Hi Tanya,
    Could you please tell me if this is acceptable.

    He didn't help his wife with the housework, take care of the baby, or even answer the phone.

    I want to use 'or' in the middle too, but there is one befor the 3rd part. Is there a better way to express the above?

    Thank you for your help!

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Ghiaath, your sentence is just fine. The 'or' is in the correct spot, and I wouldn't recommend using two (it's repetitive and unnecessary). :)

    Plamen (Guest)

    Hi, Tanya! Your comments are very useful. When we use adjectives with negative meaning for example as unhappy do we have to apply the rules for or/and for the negative sentences? She is unhappy in professional and/or private side of her life.
    Secondly, if we use the adjective NO do we have to apply the rules for negation and or/and. There is no evidence of a nerve disorder in the upper or/and lower limbs.
    Finaly, when we use both /which implies and/ and either /which implies or/, do we have follow the same rules as and/or in negation? She is not happy in both/either side of her life. Many thanks!

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Plamen,

    Thanks for the kind words. To answer your questions:

    1. The rules in this post don't apply for negative adjectives. The correct sentence is: 'She is unhappy in (both) the professional and private side of her life.'

    2. With 'no,' the rules do apply. The correct sentence is: 'There is no evidence of a nerve disorder in the upper or lower limbs.'

    3. With 'not,' we should use 'either,' not 'both.' The correct sentence is: 'She is not happy in either side of her life.' or 'She is not happy in either her professional life or her personal life.'

    Han Chiao(Guest)

    thx!

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    You're welcome!

    deven shukla(Guest)

    Hi Tanya. Can we write nor in place of or in the given examples in #trick-1?

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Deven,

    Not exactly. Remember that 'nor' takes the place of the negative adverb 'not.' You can't have both.

    So you could say 'I like neither apples nor oranges,' 'English is neither quick nor easy to learn,' etc.

    Hope that helps!

    Alexey (Guest)

    Hi Tanya,

    If two predicates which we negate are in different tenses, should we use 'or' or 'and' and the second not?
    Which one of these two sentences is correct?
    'The Landlord represents that the house has not been sold or is in dispute.'
    or
    'The Landlord represents that the house has not been sold and is not in dispute.'

    Reply to Comment

    Alexey (Guest)

    Thank you a lot for your explanations. 'Represent' is a legal term and means 'state'.

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Alexey,

    The different verb tenses in two predicates wouldn't normally affect the choice of conjunction. Usually we only use 'or' if the main verb ('represents') is negative. (I'm not sure what you mean by 'represents,' though, so I'll use the verb 'is explaining' in my examples.)

    When the main verb is positive, use 'and''
    √ The landlord is explaining that the house has not been sold and is in dispute.
    √ The landlord is explaining that the house has not been sold and is not in dispute.
    √ The landlord is explaining that the house has been sold and is in dispute.
    √ The landlord is explaining that the house has been sold and is not in dispute.

    But when the main verb is negative, use 'or':
    √ The landlord doesn't know if the house has been sold or is in dispute.

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    You're welcome, Alexey. I've never heard 'represent' used that way before. Interesting!

    Subinay (Guest)

    I am not sleeping and watching TV .
    What is the meaning of this sentence?

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    It should be 'or.' 'I am not sleeping or watching TV' means that you're doing something else instead (e.g., you're doing your homework). 'I am not sleeping and watching TV' would be very strange to say because you can't watch TV while you sleep.

    Deb (Guest)

    Am I using this correctly?

    'Patient denies alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drug use'
    if I am getting across that the patient denies use of all of the above?

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Deb, this is a tricky one since 'denies' has a negative meaning. I'd say that both 'or' and 'and' are possible here. But since there is no negative adverb (not, never), I think that 'and' is best for clarity (i.e., the patient denies all three things). We wouldn't want it to be misread as a choice (using 'or').

    Deb (Guest)

    Also--
    'patient denies a history of AND/OR current suicidal ideation'

    Thanks.

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi again Deb, as with the comment below, I'd say 'and' is the better choice for clarity.

    J Anton(Guest)

    We often describe analytical results and will pair certain compounds/tests when nothing if found i.e. No concentrations of arsenic or lead were detected or No concentrations of VOCs or PCBs were detected. Although someone would unlikely mean to pair compounds by using 'and' it seems it could be viewed as joining the items and based on that I believe 'or' is the appropriate word in this case, but appreciate your feedback.

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    I agree that 'or' is the best choice in those sentences. Not only is it the grammatically correct option, it also sounds much more natural to me. If someone used 'and' the meaning would still be clear, but it doesn't sound quite right.

    damon salvatore(Guest)

    please tell me among these which are correct in blank? With Explanation
    we don't like ____________
    THE BLACK AND BLUE COLOUR
    THE BLACK AND THE BLUE COLOURS
    THE BLACK AND BLUE COLOURS
    BLACK AND BLUE COLOURS
    BLACK AND BLUE COLOUR
    THE BLACK OR BLUE COLOUR
    THE BLACK OR THE BLUE COLOUR
    THE BLACK OR THE BLUE COLOURS
    BLACK OR BLUE COLOUR
    BLACK OR BLUE COLOURS

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Damon, the most natural sentences are:
    - We don't like black or blue. (for general colour preference)
    - We don't like the black or blue colours. (when looking at colour choices, fabric, etc.)

    damon salvatore(Guest)

    how can i say ?
    if i want to say that i like coldrinks and sweets as a combination
    if i want to say choice between coldrinks and sweets

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi again Damon, here are some natural-sounding sentences:
    1. I like cold drinks and sweets.
    2. Do you prefer cold drinks or sweets?

    damon salvatore(Guest)

    1. She doesn’t have a diary and an address book, but has some pens in her bag.
    2. She doesn’t have a diary or an address book, but has some pens in her bag. In first sentence i think she does not have a diary and an address book together(combination) at least she has one..... am i right? In second sentence i think she does not have both a diary and an adress book please explain me all how to use ''and'' ''or'' in negative sentence for ''showing all'' for ''showing combination'' for showing ''choice making''
    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi again Damon,

    Your sentences #1 and 2 have the same meaning, but 1 isn't as natural (because it is more natural/correct to use 'or' in a negative sentence). They both mean that she doesn't have a diary and she doesn't have an address book, but she does have some pens.

    It's not natural to show a choice or a combination of items in a negative sentence (because the meaning is zero—no items). If you want to show a choice, it's better to ask a question or embedded question. For example:
    - Does she have a diary or an address book in her bag? = one item
    - Does she have a diary and an address book in her bag? = two items
    - I'm not sure if she has a diary or an address book in her bag. = one item
    - I'm not sure if she has a diary and an address book in her bag. = two items

    If the verb directly before the objects is negative (as in your examples), use 'or' (because the meaning will be 'zero/no items').

    William (Guest)

    The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.
    Can we use OR to replace AND in the above quote? Why or why not?
    Thanks a lot in advance.

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi William,

    Yes, you can definitely replace 'and' with 'or' in both instances in the sentence above. In fact, this is the 'correct grammar,' as we've discussed in the post above. However, 'or' is sometimes replaced by 'and' when the author feels that the meaning will be clearer. In this sentence, both 'or' and 'and' are clear to me. I think the author chose 'and' to emphasize that the actions (read/write and /learn/unlearn/relearn) are all included and that it's not one or the other.

    damon salvatore(Guest)

    this sentence is right or wrong? 'he will either obey me or take the consequences

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Raaju,

    'Or' is correct in this sentence because you are talking about a choice. The common expression is 'face the consequences,' though, not 'take the consequences.'

    Correct sentence: 'He will either obey me or face the consequences.'

    cc (Guest)

    Tina isn't climbing a tree, she is taking a photo. <-- could we use comma to join these two sentences?

    thank you!

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi! That sentence has two complete clauses, so you need to join them somehow. A comma isn't correct here. Instead, you could use a semicolon, an em dash, or a period.

    • Tina isn’t climbing a tree; she is taking a photo.
    • Tina isn’t climbing a tree—she is taking a photo.
    • Tina isn’t climbing a tree. She is taking a photo.

    Choot (Guest)

    Please tell me Tanya in British English much,many,more,most are considered as which part of speech? Adjective or adverb

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Choot,

    They have different parts of speech (adjective, pronoun, noun, adverb, and/or determiner) depending on how they're used in a sentence. Oxford Dictionaries is a great place to check on the British usage for each word: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com

    For example, here are some of Oxford's examples for 'much':
    - as determiner: 'I didn't get much sleep that night.'
    - as pronoun: 'He does not eat much.'
    - as adverb: 'Thanks very much.'

    Love (Guest)

    Thanks a bunch for this post. My students
    were really unhappy when I marked it wrong in their English test. Now I can explain it to them.

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    You're welcome! I'm glad it'll come in handy.

    damon salvatore(Guest)

    'You said you were happy' or
    'You said that you were happy'
    Which of the above sentenceis right?
    I think that we have to use 'that' after 'said' so that it will become a noun clause and full clause can be used as an object.

    Reply to Comment

    Piyush (Guest)

    Thanks you tanya. Love you ummmaaahhhhh

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Piyush,

    Both of your sentences above are correct, and there is no difference in meaning. These sentences are examples of reported speech, and you are correct that the clause '(that) you were happy' is a noun clause because it takes the object position of the main clause: You (S) said (V) that you were happy (O).

    With noun clauses that act as objects, it is almost always possible to drop the relative pronoun 'that' from the clause. Dropping 'that' makes it more informal and is very common in speech. Find more tips and examples here: https://blog.esllibrary.com/2017/01/26/reported-speech/

    Holmes Yu(Guest)

    Hi,
    I'm an English teacher in China. Here comes a sentence: Be careful not to get sore throat and lose your voice. I wonder if "and" here is used properly. And why not "or"?
    Detailed explanation is expected. Thank you in advance.
    Holmes

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Holmes,
    Great question! There are two possibilities here. One is "Be careful not to get a sore throat or lose your voice." This would be the regular case for talking about two things in a negative sentence. It means "Be careful not to get a sore throat. Be careful not to lose your voice."

    However, the second possibility is more common in this case. Because getting a sore throat is connected to losing your voice, "and" is the best choice here. I would say "Be careful not to get a sore throat and lose your voice." It means "Be careful not to get a sore throat because that will lead to losing your voice."

    For an example of a case where "or" is more common, we can think of two things that might be related but are not as "connected." For example, we would commonly say "Be careful not to get a sore throat or a cough." Hope that helps!

    Muthu Chelvan(Guest)

    Sound can only travel through solid ,liquid,or gas( not in vaccum).
    Is this is correct or I should have used 'and 'instead of 'or'.

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Muthu, it's great to use "or" when there's a choice involved. Using "or" in your sentence means sound can travel through any of those choices. In your sentence, "and" is also correct, but it could be misread to mean that sound has to travel through all three together, so "or" is best.

    Jill Hoffmann(Guest)

    What about a negative sentence where the two adverbs go together? For example: I'm glad you still enjoy talking to me, even if I don't always speak clearly and succinctly.
    OR does it have to be: even if I don't always speak clearly or succinctly

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Jill, your example with "or" ("even if I don't always speak clearly or succinctly") sounds best to me. With adverbs, there isn't much chance of the meaning being misinterpreted, so if you used "and" I would also clearly understand the meaning. But "or" is generally considered best practice in a negative sentence.

    Jill Hoffmann(Guest)

    Thank you very much, Tanya! I appreciate your help and expertise.

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Anytime, Jill!

    Jeff Temple(Guest)

    Thanks for your concise explanation!

    Reply to Comment

    Tammy Wik(ESL Library Staff)

    Tanya does an awesome job! I'll pass along the compliment :)

    Pavla Hanuskova(Guest)

    Hello,
    what is the correct negative form for:
    The dog jumps and runs.
    is it
    The dog does not jump or run.
    or
    The dog does not jump nor run.?
    thank you. Pavla

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Pavla, the correct negative sentence is "The dog does not jump or run." It might help you to remember that "nor" isn't that common in English anymore, and it's usually only used with "neither."

    Reply to Comment

    Margaretha Indrati(Guest)

    Thank you. I was reading a shared material and it used "and" to combine the nouns in a negative sentence that made me feel weird and try to find the reference for that, and I found this.

    Reply to Comment

    Tanya Trusler(Author)

    Hi Margaretha,

    What a beautiful name you have! I'm glad to hear that this post helped you find the answers you were looking for.

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