I've been trying to find out the difference between these four lately but whenever I look up any of them in a Japanese Dictionary, the only thing on the page is the other three options with no explanation.

Is there any way to separate them by nuance? Also, for example, if I was to say: オレンジジュースが欲しいですか。それとも、コーヒーが欲しいですか

...why does it sounds like it is all inclusive? The combination of the particles "と" and "も" kind of makes it sound like you can have both at the same time. Sort of like 両親とも教師です。

Or is it saying "Both at the same time are an option"?

1 Answer 1


Conveniently, the 類語例解辞典 groups three of these together in one heading and adds the other in a note at the end. Here's what its 使い分け section has to say on the matter:


または is used for cases where there are two choices and whatever is not selected will be cast aside, or to show that either choice is acceptable. In these cases, the person making the selection has freedom to make either decision.


もしくは is used in cases where there are several choices, and the options are limited to those presented.


あるいは is used when choosing between two things and it is possible to choose both of them at the same time. That said, it carries the expectation that there is, in fact, a correct choice to be made or that the chooser doesn't really have freedom to decide between them.


All of the above are primarily literary words, and are usually replaced by in everyday conversation.


それとも is used in spoken language. Its use is limited to choosing from what is contained in the question, as can be seen in the following example sentence:

「行く、それとも行かない?」 "Are you going, or aren't you?"

  • Now that's more like it!!!! Thankyou so much! I will definitely make this part of my notes!
    – Nathan
    Apr 11, 2014 at 3:12
  • 2
    I think you might want to double-check some of your translations. The English doesn't quite seem to correspond to the Japanese.
    – user1478
    Apr 11, 2014 at 9:46
  • Think I caught the issues. Look better now?
    – Kaji
    Apr 11, 2014 at 13:55
  • What is 類語例解辞典? Is this a book or an online resource? I'm not finding anything useful in searches.
    – vaer-k
    Jan 26, 2023 at 22:11
  • 1
    @vaer-k It's a Japanese-language thesaurus that used to be bundled with OS X up through Leopard (2005). Later versions got rid of it, and so I've been importing the dictionary files into all later versions since then to keep access to the material, since it's been insanely helpful over the years.
    – Kaji
    Jan 27, 2023 at 23:18

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