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The dictionary definitions of these three words aren't particularly helpful in figuring out when to use which one.

Lewis Elementary's definition of sáné includes

  1. indeed, doubtless, by all means, truly, certainly, of course, right, very

Certé, meanwhile, includes

  1. really, surely, assuredly, actually, certainly, as a fact

Finally, profectó is

actually, indeed, really, truly, assuredly, certainly.

This is very frustrating from a living-Latin perspective. Obviously, we use "certainly" in a lot of different contexts, but I wish the dictionary had more to say about which contexts call for which word. From what I can tell, for example, one use of sáné is as a concessive "to be sure"—"He's loathsome, to be sure, but he's still your brother." But I can very easily imagine that "sure" in "Surely you can see that I'm right about this" would call for a different word.

The example sentences provided in Lewis & Short aren't much help either. In Nón est ita, júdicés, non est profectó, profectó could be meant in so many different ways that I find it unhelpful as a guide. ("It's not like that, judges; [you may think it's like that, but] in fact it's not." Or "It's not like that, judges; it most assuredly isn't." And so on.)

Can anybody provide any guidance, however incomplete, in the matter of different uses of these words? It's possible that the clearest thing to do would be to provide English examples illustrating the different uses (i.e., "You would use certé if you were trying to say something like, 'Blah blah blah certainly blah blah,'") but I'm happy for anything that helps.

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Ramshorn's Dictionary of Latin Synonyms, pg. 113, has a helpful entry on the four related terms certe, certo, profecto, and sane:

  1. Certe: certainly, of a thing; at least, if it applies to a given case;

    Si Deus scit, certe illud eveniet. Cic.
    Quod eæ nostris literis certe scire potuistis. Id.
    Homines mortem vel optare incipiant, vel certe timere desistant. Id.

  2. Certo: with certainty, of the conviction of him who knows:

    De quo te non dubitare certo scio. Id.

  3. Profecto: assuredly, in fact, assuring something as fact:

    Non est ita, judices, non est profecto. Cic.

  4. Sane:

    • entirely so, verily ;

      Sane vellem potuisset obsequi voluntati tuæ. Cic. ;

    • in "concessive style," it signifies, may it be so :

      Hæc sint falsa sane. Id. 198.

Walter's Latin Prose Composition for College Use offers the following guidance:

profecto, sane, certe, certo, etc.: certainly; any way; these particles simply lend emphasis.

  1. profecto: (pro + facto = "for a fact") is the strongest— as a matter of course,
  2. certe: precedes and lends assurance to the whole thought,
  3. certo: [lends assurance] to the predicate, as such, alone; and
  4. sane: concedes, grants something as true, and so = yes.

This entry also ends with an interesting note that might be relevant to the inherent issue of translation in your question: "Oftentimes our 'indeed,' 'really,' etc., are fully translated merely by placing the verb in an emphatic position."

To add some simple personal observations to the above:

  1. Certo is less common as an adverb, and seems to be used overwhelmingly with scio to signify my own confidence in what I am saying. It thus means something like "I know for certain" whereas certe scio, for instance, is more like "It is certain that I know...".
  2. Profecto appears to be the most objective word for expressing factual certainty, as witnessed in its origin from pro + facto. Walter suggests that it means something closer to "obviously," but I think this depends on context.
  3. Certe means certainly as well, but much like English "certainly" is often juxtaposed with another idea that is not certain. It can thus mean something like "at least" or "of course" with something potentially more ominous to follow.
  4. Sane appears to be the most subjective and, in my experience, often is paired with the subjunctive as a concession and means something more like "even". "Let us accept that X, but..."

And last, a quote from Cicero that seems to juxtapose and contrast two of these words nicely:

quid habet enim vita commodi? quid non potius laboris? sed habeat sane; habet certe tamen aut satietatem aut modum. (Cicero, De Senectute, 84)

For what advantage does life have? Or rather, what toil does it not have? But even if it should have advantages, nevertheless it certainly either reaches satiety or comes to an end.

  • This is a wonderful, wonderful answer and gives me a lot to think about—I really appreciate it. I'll wait a day or two to accept and award the bounty in case anybody else comes along and gives an even fuller answer, but I doubt that will happen. – Joel Derfner Jun 2 '16 at 14:50
  • What difference does it make if I use sane rather than quamquam or cum in a concession? (I can make this into a separate question if there is an elaborate answer that shouldn't be given in comments.) – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 2 '16 at 14:52
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    @JoonasIlmavirta Well, there's the syntactic difference that sane isn't a conjunction. The English translation above doesn't reflect the Latin structure, which is something like "But let's say it does; nevertheless..." – TKR Jun 2 '16 at 15:29
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    I'd say there's a propitiating, defensive quality in concessive sane that isn't there in quamquam or cum. A sense of "Don't get me wrong!" or "No, no, your objection absolutely has merit!" – Joel Derfner Jun 2 '16 at 15:53
  • @brianpck Thanks in particular, by the way, for Walter. English has changed so much since the early 19th century that I often find Döderlein and Ramshorn unhelpful, but Walter, though limited in scope, I'm finding much clearer. – Joel Derfner Jun 2 '16 at 15:54

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