Mutually Exclusive

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A reader asks,

Could you write a piece on the use of the term “mutually exclusive”? I always get a little befuddled when someone says, “This and that are not mutually exclusive.” I have to stop and do the math to make sure I follow.

The expression “mutually exclusive” is used in statistics to refer to events that cannot occur at the same time. For example, with $10 in my pocket, I go into a store intending to buy a battery and a jump drive, but each item costs $10. I can buy the battery or I can buy the jump drive, but not both. The purchases are “mutually exclusive.”

Writers use the term when discussing subjects that seem to be so opposed in nature as to be incapable of coexisting but which, in their opinion, can in fact do so. For example:

Feminism and Christianity don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Interpretation: Feminism, which advocates the equality of the sexes, is being contrasted with Christianity, a patriarchal religion that teaches female submission.

Privacy and Security Are Not Mutually Exclusive.
Interpretation: Security, in the sense of government defenses that rely on surveillance and data gathering, is being contrasted with privacy, the condition of being free from public attention.

Are Religion and Science mutually exclusive?
Interpretation: Religion, which requires adherents to believe in events that defy the laws of physics, is contrasted with science, which insists on physical proofs before belief.

The Germans don’t see brains and brawn as mutually exclusive.
Interpretation: “All brawn and no brains” is an idiom that reflects the popular belief that athletic qualities and intelligence are not to be found in the same person. The statement, from a sports site, posits the idea that intelligence can be expected of athletes.

Three other common expressions that use the adverb mutually to mean a reciprocal action or status are:

mutually beneficial: good for both parties.
Example: After 1940, Mexico and the United States slowly crafted a mutually beneficial relationship.

mutually delighted: good feelings on each side.
Example: By the end of their first term together, in the spring of 1874, it was clear that teacher and pupil were mutually delighted. 

mutually assured destruction: a state of hostility in which two equally strong opponents are capable of destroying one another in open conflict.
Example: Fifty years ago this week the idea of mutually assured nuclear destruction was outlined in a major speech. But how did this frightening concept of the Cold War fade from people’s psyches?

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11 thoughts on “Mutually Exclusive”

  1. The term may mean that ownership of something is exclusive as to each of the owners, with neither holding an interest superior to the other. So, I am the exclusive owner of the software that I wrote with my spouse and my spouse is the exclusive owner, too. We each hold a mutually exclusive ownership interest in what we created.

  2. Joe, can you point to any sort of citation or example of the term being used the way you describe? I’ve never encountered it, and it seems like it would be needlessly ambiguous. What you are describing is, I think, a co-ownership or an equal partnership, There is nothing, so far as I can can tell “exclusive” about it.

  3. Do not confuse mutually exclusive with mutually exhaustive.
    They are two different concepts.
    Venn diagrams are quite illustrative in these cases.

  4. Slightly off topic maybe, just mentioning something about the use of the word mutual. IIRC, my mother was adamant that you could not use the phrase “mutual friend.” According to her, the definition of “mutual” involved 2 parties and some sort of reciprocity/relationship between them, and not, for example, 2 people having a relationship involving a 3rd person. So for example, if I am friends with Debby, we have a mutual friendship. However, if Debby and I are both friends with Anne, Anne is not our “mutual friend,” she is a friend we have in common. Is this a correct interpretation of the use of the word mutual? I know people would say Anne is a mutual friend, but is it “correct” to use the word that way? My mother died almost 10 years ago but I am still afraid to use that expression!!

  5. The ANZUS treaty was a mutual defense treaty between Australia, the USA, and New Zealand. Three countries, but New Zealand has dropped out of the alliance.

  6. There is a high level mutual intelligence sharing pact called Five Eyes.
    The countries involved are the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. All five cooperate in gathering and analyzing information.
    Five English speaking countries excepting French Canada, but all high ranking members of the Canadian Forces need to be bilingual, anyway.
    The existance of Five Eyes has just been revealed publicly.

  7. When multiple sets are involved, the terms mutually exclusive and mutually exhaustive are used all the time in probability and statistics. These are very important concepts in these fields.
    A few Venn diagrams would show you in five minutes.

  8. LOL – Is there something mind-boggling about Venn diagrams and sets?
    I remember studying about them in the latter 1960’s. We had some great math textbooks back then —
    and they are still in print.
    See http://www.amazon.com

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