Distinctions between 'aut', 'vel', and 'sive'/'seu'

Imber Ranae

Ranunculus Iracundus
[Copied from this thread]

Aut tends to join alternatives that are mutually exclusive, and when correlated (aut...aut) the one will positively exclude the other. Because the alternatives given are presented as the only alternatives, and thus the denial or falsity of one alternative necessitates the other, it often has the force of "or else".

Vel is much weaker than aut, and usually implies a choice for the reader/listener that isn't necessarily mutually exclusive or presented as a complete set of possibilities (supposedly it was an old imperative of volo). As such you can often translate it "or if you wish/prefer". It may also imply that the alternative(s) that follow are merely incidental or an afterthought; "or perhaps/or even". The alternatives may still naturally exclude each other, but the exclusion isn't emphasized as it is with aut. For these reasons vel is much more likely to concatenate a long string of alternatives than aut. The enclitic -ve is simply a less common substitute for vel. (Vel is also an adverb that means "even" or "actually", and with superlatives "the very".)

Sive (or seu) may be used singly in its most literal sense as the equivalent of vel si "or if". This is comparatively rare, however. More commonly it's found correlated sive...sive "whether...or", forming a disjunctive conditional wherein both protases are conceived of as equally likely alternatives. It may follow the form of any traditional conditional statement (future-less-vivid, contrafactual, etc.) with a verb in the proper tense and mood for each clause, or simply correlate two independent words in a single clause. It may also be correlated three or more times "whether...or...or...". Occasionally it's used singly in the same sense as vel.

Aut disce, aut discede. = "Either learn, or else [if you won't do that] get out."

Vel imperatore vel milite me utimini. = "Employ me either as general or even as just a soldier."

Sive casu sive consilio deorum... = "Whether by accident or by design of the gods..." (incomplete thought)


Staff member
I thought I would add a note concerning a different sort of "or".

In questions where one is asking which of two (or more) options is the case, "or" translates to none of the words that are the topic of this thread (aut, vel, sive/seu), but to an.

E.g. "Do you want an apple or a pear? (Which of the two do you want?)" = malum vis an pirum?

(The enclitic -ne may be added to the first option — e.g. malumne vis an pirum? — or utrum may be added before it — e.g. utrum malum vis an pirum?)

Visne malum aut/vel pirum? would mean "Do you want an apple or (even) a pear?": it would be asking whether you wanted a piece of fruit (whether apple or pear) at all, not giving you two options between which you had to choose (apple or pear — which one?).


Homo Sapiens
Staff member
(perhaps also it is worth mentioning that in that same construction, rarely, the second word can have -ne and the first word nothing: Ego autem non 'privato publicone consilio Saguntum oppugnatum sit' quaerendum censeam sed 'utrum iure an iniuria' . This sentence from Livy actually contains an example of both constructions.)