What is Sine Qua Non?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Sine qua non (pronounce seen kwa non) is a Latin term that literally translates to “without which not.” This is more easily understood as conditions or circumstances that are essential for make something possible. One might use the phrase in the following manner: “A singe qua non of becoming a good musician is to practice regularly.” In other words, it is essential for musicians to practice in order to become good musicians.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

It is often a highbrow phrase, used to express one’s education and ability to slip into Latin references with ease. It tends to crop up in more “educated” journals, literary reviews, and in political writings meant for fairly advanced readers. One doesn’t often see sine qua non used in pop culture magazines or in daily local newspapers.

However, one can see sine qua non used in a playful fashion. For example a salon in Chicago has the name Sine Qua Non, suggesting that hair care at that particular salon is essential. The phrase often also shows up in material referring to the law, where it is partnered with many other Latin phrases.

A longer version, actually more correct in Latin, is conditio sine qua non, or “but for this it could not be.” However, it is more common to see it used in its abbreviated form in the English language. Conditio sine qua non better expresses the true meaning of the term and is commonly used in a number of Romance languages, like Italian, and French. The phrase has also migrated to German and is a familiar expression in many other European languages.

In Latin, sine qua non was traditionally used in legal settings. The term also might be found in philosophy or treatises discussing medicine. In all cases it refers to something essential, which if lacking, makes other things either non-existent or impossible. Since the phrase does occur from time to time in different writings, it could be argued that it is a sine qua non that students understand the expression, particularly those who seek a college education.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


People mag is a pop-culture rag that appeals to people with deficient vocabularies and no serious interests. If you look up "sine qua non", you will find that it or a variation is the name of several corporations, so it's still with us as are many other Latin phrases. Ever hear of "semper fidelis"?


One thing this article and others miss is that "sine qua non" was to be distinguished from primary cause. The thing that is a condition sine qua non should not be considered the cause of the effect, but a condition under which the effect could not come about.

For instance, if one were to run over a pedestrian, you could say that the tires on the car were sine qua non but you could not thus reason that the tires *caused* the accident.

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