ἤ as introductory particle: standard of comparison

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βέλτιόν ἐστι σῶμά γ’ ἢ ψυχὴν νοσεῖν

Het is beter dat het lichaam ziek is dan de ziel.

Menandros, Spreuken 75


The particle ἤ (or ἤε) signals a standard of comparison (or ‘tweede lid van de vergelijking’) as an adjective complement or an object.

Lexical usage

The standard of comparison is usually expressed by the comparative of an adjective. It is further used with the positive degree of comparison of ἄλλος ‘other’, ἄλλοιος ‘different’, διπλοῦς ‘double’, ἥμισυς ‘half’ etc.

Syntactic behaviour

If the word following ἤ is a nominal form, it is put in the same case as the first element in the comparison. Functionally, therefore, ἤ corresponds to the English than and the Latin quam.
If two qualities are being compared both the first and the second quality are put in the comparative (e.g. συντομώτερον ἦ σαφέστερον ‘more concise than clear’).

Historical background

As a coordinating conjunction with the meaning ‘or’ ἤ (or ἤε) has disjunctive force, i.e. ἤ contrasts two elements with each other: ‘either the one, or the other’. We find the same disjunctive force in expressions of the standard of comparison.
According to the linguist Émile Benveniste the two ways of expressing a standard of comparison (the particle ἤ and the genitive) go back to PIE. On the specific meaning of the particle ἤ he says: “Le domaine propre de ce type de comparaison est celui du choix entre deux objets en présence, ce qui est accordé à l’un se trouvant refusé à l’autre. C'est donc une alternative, signalée par une véritable disjonction.”

Example Sentences: 


πάντων τῶν ἄλλων ῥᾷον εἴη ζῴων ἢ ἀνθρώπων ἄρχειν

Het zou makkelijker zijn over alle andere dieren te heersen dan over de mens.



διὰ γὰρ οὐδὲν ἄλλο μοι δοκεῖ παρασκευάσαι τόνδε μοι τὸν κίνδυνον οὗτος ἢ διὰ φθόνον

Want ik denk dat hij dit gevaar om geen enkele andere reden voor mij voorbereid heeft dan uit jaloezie.



ὁ γὰρ παρὼν καιρὸς οὐκ ἐᾷ μυθολογεῖν, ἀλλ’ ἀναγκαῖον ἦν συντομώτερον ἢ σαφέστερον διαλεχθῆναι περὶ αὐτῶν

The present occasion does not allow me to tell fables, but it is necessary to speak concisely rather than clearly about these matters.