Anyone who’s learned a foreign language can tell you that it’s sometimes hard to find what a specific English word means in other languages.
Japanese is a pretty different language from English, grammatically speaking. Translations are complicated and there isn’t always a one-to-one relationship between concepts like “or.”
So how do you say “or” in Japanese?
How do you say “or” in Japanese?
Although there isn’t a single Japanese word you can stick in the middle of a sentence to mean “or,” there are several different grammatical structures you can use to show the same relationship between choices.
The most simple two ways are repeated use of the particle か or なり after successive options.
Another option is 又は（または）, used in between two noun phrases or sentences to connect them as possible choices. A fourth way to say “or” in Japanese is to use とか after each option.
Using か to mean “or”
If you’ve studied any Japanese, you’re probably familiar with か as the so-called “question particle,” used at the end of a sentence a single time to show that it’s a question.
Another way to use this particle is as a “linking particle” to connect multiple parts of a sentence in a way that shows their relationship.
Think of it like the topic particle は, which shows the relationship between the subject of a sentence and the remainder of it.
In this case, however, repeated use of the word か after two or more successive phrases shows that they are all possible options under discussion.
Since this is a grammatical structure, and not just a word you can stick in the middle of a sentence, it’s important to understand how it’s used in context.
Written out like a math formula, this use of か looks like this: [noun]か[noun]か
「お茶かコーヒーか、どっちの法が好きですか？」 (おちゃ か コーヒ か どっち の ほう が すき です か)
Meaning roughly “Do you prefer tea or coffee,” a literal translation of this would be “Tea or coffee: which do you prefer?” Note the use of か as a linking particle to say “tea or coffee” in the phrase お茶かコーヒーか.
「難しいことがあれば、お父さんかお母さんか、教えてください。」 （むずかしい こと が あれば おとうさん か おかあさん か おしえて ください）
“If you ever run into trouble, please tell your father or your mother” might be one way to say this in English. As in the previous example, the repeated use of か shows that お父さん and お母さん are options for who to tell.
Using なり to say “or” in Japanese
Grammatically, なり is used in exactly the same way as か to link two noun phrases and show that both are possible options.
As a formula, なり would look the same as か: [noun]か[noun]か
Keep in mind that か and なり are only usable if you are comparing noun phrases.
If what you’re trying to compare consists of different actions that could be taken, represented by verbs, you can add たり to the end of the て form of each verb and follow the phrase with the right form of する.
In other words, for verbs the formula is [て-form verb minus the て]たり[て-form verb minus the て]たりする
「蝙蝠はバナナなりピーマンなりが好きです」 （こうもり は バナナ なり ピーマン なり が すき です)
“Bats like bananas or peppers.”
In English, we might use the word “and” instead in this sentence, because bats like both of those things. This is technically a peculiarity of English, however, and technically this is a so-called “inclusive or,” meaning that the correct option can be one or the other or both.
If we wanted to translate this and keep the word “or” in the sentence, we might add “or other things like that” to the end. “Bats like bananas, peppers or other things like that.”
「肉食べたり牛乳飲んだりする法が体にいいです。」 （にく たべたり ぎゅうにゅう のんだり する ほう が からだ に いい です)
Although たり technically takes the place of “or” in this sentence, we might translate it more naturally as “things like X.”
This gives the particle an interesting function in a sentence where you have different verbs, as it implies the option listed is one correct option among several unlisted ones.
In this sentence, たり is used like that to give us something like “Eating meat and drinking milk is good for your health.”
The English sentence “I might read a book or watch TV on my day off” would be one case for using たり. In Japanese, you could say 「休日に本を読んだり、テレビをみたり。」 (きゅうじつ に ほん を よんだり テレビ を みたり)
又は is a third option for saying “or” in Japanese.
Like か and なり/たり, this conjunction goes between multiple noun phrases. You can even link whole sentences with this one! Unlike the previous options, 又は only appears a single time in the middle of the sentence.
In this respect, it’s closer to the English conjunction “or.” Like たり, you can connect also completely different ideas with this kind of “or.”
The formula for this option is: [noun phrase]か又は[noun phrase]
Note that the particle か needs to appear after the first noun phrase to properly connect it to または.
Also, while you can connect two entire sentences with 又は, you can’t use this conjunction to connect two questions.
If you’re trying to ask someone which of two options is correct, you should write the first question as a complete sentence, then start the second question with それとも instead of 又は: [question 1]。それとも[question 2]
「コーヒはいかがですか。それともお茶はいかがですか。」 (コーヒ は いかが です か それとも おちゃ は いかが です か)
“Would you like coffee? Or would you like tea?”
Because this “or” is used to connect two sentences, it’s necessary to use それとも instead of 又は.
“Brown said he wants to go to Tokyo or stay in a traditional Japanese in.”
Here, 又は is used to show that these are both things Brown would like to do. Each of these two phrases are essentially complete sentences. Note again that か is used to connect the first sentence to 又は.
とか to connect a series of possibilities
とか is another way to say “or” in Japanese. This connecting particle works almost identically to なり and か, but unlike those other options it does not imply whether one option or the other is preferred. You can string along phrases connected by とか nearly indefinitely.[noun phrase]とか[noun phrase]とか…
“What kind of food do you like?”
“Sushi, eel bowl, ramen… Well, various Japanese-style foods like that.”
Here, the speaker is answering a question by connecting a number of options with とか.
Even though in translation the word does not appear, even in English we would understand that these are all options and not that the speaker wants all three of them.
Bonus: Saying “or things like that” in Japanese using などと
If you want to list one representative example rather than multiple things, try the handy phrase “などと.”
「日本語は難しい言葉などと言う人がいる。」 (にほんご は むずかしい ことば などと いう ひと が いる)
There are people who say things like “Japanese is a difficult language.”
「妹はケーキなどとが好きです。」 (いもうと は ケーキ などと が すき です)
“My sister likes cake or things like that.”
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.