The lower of one thing or the lower of 2 things?

Which conjunction do English speakers use with the comparative form of adjectives to describe a test applied to 2 nouns in order to select one of those nouns?  I have the impression that American English uses, for example, ‘the lower of A or B’ where British English uses ‘the lower of A and B’.

I haven’t yet found evidence to confirm my impression, but I can illustrate it with the following example, which often arises in accounting.   

Example: valuing inventory

Manufacturer and retailers generally value their inventory in their balance sheet at the cost of the inventory or, if lower, at the amount they can sell it for.

For example, suppose the cost of an item of inventory was £100. If the manufacturer or retailer estimates that it can sell the inventory for more than £100, it will value it at £100. But if it estimates that it can only sell it for £80, it will value the inventory at £80.

Perhaps surprisingly, British and American speakers of English use different conjunctions to describe that calculation:

  • British speakers talk about ‘the lower of cost and current value’
  • American speakers talk about ‘the lower of cost or current value’

In fact, I’m simplifying the terminology here. The current value used in this calculation is called ‘net realisable value’ in Britain but ‘market value’ (or just ‘market’) in the US. The differences between these terms and the differences between the concepts they stand for do not matter for this post.

Does this difference matter?

In one sense, this difference in usage (and versus or) doesn’t matter. We are looking here at a fixed expression that has become fossilised. It is just a convention and the separate meanings of its individual components aren’t important.

On the other hand, I have always found the American convention less logical and so I have never been able to make myself use it. The value included in the balance sheet is the lower of 2 numbers; it is not the lower of 1 number. In my view, and captures that meaning better than or does.

Postscript

In writing this post, I discovered that the US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) changed this terminology in 2015—though only for some circumstances. Since then, the US requirements:

  • still refer to the ‘lower of cost or market’ for inventory valued using a List In First Out (LIFO) basis or using a ‘retail method’; but
  • now refer to the ‘lower of cost and net realizable value’ for other inventory. The FASB made this change to converge terminology with International Financial Reporting Standards.

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