"If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would have not mentioned these alone.'" – Epictetus

What does the word "else" mean? I think it means "otherwise". Is it correct?


Else used as shown is a conjunction, meaning 'otherwise'. It is common in, but not exclusive to, British English. Examples:

  • We must repair the walls, else the roof will collapse.
  • Hurry, else you will be late.
  • This is not uncommon in American English, at least in formal writing. Although it may be true that the British are more often formal than we are. – Andrew Jun 24 '18 at 16:21
  • It's more often rendered in AE as "or else" ... – Robusto Jun 24 '18 at 16:23
  • Else meaning 'otherwise' is not particularly 'formal' in British English, and is common in Northern regional speech, where 'otherwise would be heard as stiff and formal. – Michael Harvey Jun 24 '18 at 19:05

The phrasing is old fashioned, probably because you are reading a translation that was made in the ninteenth or early twentieth century. A modern writer of American English would likely write the two words or else instead of the one word else. Otherwise would be a good substitute, but again or otherwise would likely be more common.

One of the defects of the English lexicon is that there is no universally accepted way to distinguish between what mathematicians call the inclusive or and the exclusive or. The phrase A or B means A alone or B alone or both A and B: or alone is lexically inclusive (although logic may indicate that the meaning is exclusive). It is equivalent to the Latin vel. Latin had the form aut A aut B to mark the exclusive or: A or B but not both.

A else B is one old fashioned way to form an exclusive or. I prefer either A or else B, but the only way to be sure that every English speaker will grasp that you mean an exclusive or is to exclude the possibility of both A and B explicitly. The usage of else in your example to mean an exclusive or unfortunately did not catch on.

  • -1 for "one of the defects etc etc". There's a way to express the idea, though perhaps not in a single word. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 24 '18 at 17:22
  • "There is a way to express the idea." There is, and I explained how to do so. "Though perhaps not in a single word" suggests that you have at least one single word to propose as a candidate. It would help were you to disclose it. Your "etc, etc" is a neat rhetorical trick to leave out the key word in what I actually wrote, namely lexicon. If you are unable to come up with the single word that denotes an exclusive or in English, then your objection seems frivolous. If you can do so, then I shall thank you sincerely and edit my answer appropriately. – Jeff Morrow Jun 25 '18 at 11:41
  • It wasn't a rhetorical trick. I just didn't want to type out the full sentence. My objection relates to your allegation that the "English lexicon" is defective, for a natural language cannot be tarred in that way. Only a formal language can be. Natural languages rely upon context in ways that formal languages do not. In context, English can express both concepts in ways that are universally understood by humans, even if they fail to satisfy a logician's sense of the unambiguous and "do not compute". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 25 '18 at 12:46
  • You are of course entitled to your normative opinion that every natural language should be deemed flawless. But I still think it is a rhetorical trick to fail to quote the word that is essential to the argument being disputed, particularly when the fact behind the argument is evaded with a "perhaps." – Jeff Morrow Jun 25 '18 at 16:06
  • And you're welcome to your opinion that the English lexicon is "defective". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 25 '18 at 16:21

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