What is the usage and meaning of "else" in this example?

The key difference between a program and a project is the finite nature of a project - a project must always have a specific end date, else it is an ongoing program.

I thought "else" could only be an adverb, in which case it wouldn't be grammatically correct to connect the two clauses "a project must always have a specific end date" and "it is an ongoing program".

  • Isn't it basically like "or else"? i.e "...a project must always have a specific end date, or else it is an ongoing program
    – Thursagen
    Commented Jul 2, 2011 at 13:20
  • I'm sure this usage is more common among programmers, who are used to IF...ELSE loops. Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 15:09
  • Else is a common shortening of or else. This is a common process that turns adverbs into conjunctions. So from so that and and so; for from for that; because from by cause that; and so on.
    – Anonym
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 21:12

3 Answers 3


As also reported by the NOAD, else is used as shorted form of or else, which is used to introduce the second of two alternatives.

In the sentence you reported, the alternatives are:

  • it is a project with a specified end date
  • it is an ongoing program (without a specified end date)

Else is always an adverb, but in that case it's used as otherwise or if not, and if you try to replace that word, the period will still work:

[...] a project must always have a specific end date, otherwise it is an ongoing program.

[...] a project must always have a specific end date, if not, it is an ongoing program.

There is nothing on the regular definitions where I've checked but in the Oxford American Learner's Dictionary, it is put under the "Idioms" below.

  • Note that, as the dictionary says, the more common idiom is or else, rather than just else.
    – psmears
    Commented Jul 2, 2011 at 9:17
  • @psmears, yes, you're right, but I suppose that the "or" is replaced by the comma in this case, no? Or is it really a non-standard usage?
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jul 2, 2011 at 9:19
  • I'm not sure. It sounds non-standard to me (though I've certainly heard it), but it might just be more common in US English (for example) than it is where I come from...
    – psmears
    Commented Jul 2, 2011 at 9:22
  • I would guess it's not used often enough in US English to be formally considered correct grammar yet, but it is used often enough that it would not be perceived as unusual. Commented Jul 2, 2011 at 11:32
  • The English for this is or else. Some computer languages just use keyword else for this, so I'm guessing the original quote was written by someone who was a programmer at some time.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jul 2, 2011 at 16:37

In your example, else is being used as a conjunction, specifying an alternate outcome. This not the most common way, and people are much more likely to use the word "otherwise". However, it is used, and looking at the British National Corpus, I did find a few examples of that http://bnc.bl.uk/saraWeb.php?qy=%2C+else&mysubmit=Go

However, else is not just an adverb. It can also be an adjective. Merriam Webster lists it as an adjective, and an adverb. It also lists it as a conjunction if used with "or" as in "or else".

Consider this sentence.

What else did you eat?

"Else" is most certainly being used as an adjective here.

Wiktionary also explains all three uses: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/else

To conclude, it most certainly isn't always an adverb. It is just as commonly an adjective, and also can be a conjunction.

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