Alternate And Alternative Are Not Synonyms

You can take care when you write. Alternatively, you can mangle the language by failing to understand the differences between similar-sounding words. Many people alternate between the two.

Picture by David DeHetre

The essential distinction between 'alternate' and 'alternative' was neatly summed by a Lifehacker commenter last year:

Alternate = black white black white black white Alternative = black or white

The fact that many sloppy writers don't bother to distinguish between the two senses means that some people will argue quite passionately that 'alternate' can be used to mean 'alternative'. The Macquarie Dictionary (our authority on these matters) testily describes this definition as "disputed but increasingly common". I absolutely dispute it, and this misuse is often found in sentences that have other problems.

Take this example, sourced from a Google News search:

Google's suggested search terms are alternately helpful, funny and nonsensical — sometimes all three at once.

In this case, a better rewrite would be:

Google's suggested search terms are often helpful, funny or nonsensical — sometimes all three at once.

If you'd argue for a different rewording, tell us (and tell us why) in the comments.

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


Comments

    "He took an alternate route".

    Just to be clear, you're suggesting this sentence is incorrect? It should be, "he took an alternative route"? 'Alternate' sounds right here.

      Yes, that's what I'm suggesting. The route is a different option, an alternative, not one of two regularly switched choices. He could alternate between the two alternative routes.

    This is one of those that've just crept in from the US... Unquestioned. We all suddenly started saying "alternit" (alternate) to describe alternative options.
    It has always sounded extremely wrong to me, now I know why!

    This is a bit off topic, but I just want to say I HATE it when people use the expression 'everything but' or 'all but' in the exact opposite way it's supposed to be used. It's supposed to mean everything EXCEPT FOR, not just 'everything'.

    The difference in use of "alternate" may reside in the verb form "to alternate" meaning "to go form one to the other" and the noun form "An alternate". meaning "one of usually two options".

    The dictionary says otherwise.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/alternate?r=75
    12. alternative ( defs. 4, 6 ) .

    I get pissed off when people say irregardless instead of regardless.

    Irregardless isn't a word!

      Usage would beg to differ. However angry it might make us, it is still a word with an accepted meaning.

        "Irregardless" is primarily a North American colloquialism, and is widely considered a "nonstandard" or "incorrect" word.

    A pet peeve of mine is another misuse of Alternative, like this:

    "He had two alternatives".

    No he didn't, he had ONE alternative, the possibility of choosing between two options. You may say he had "two options" though.

      He may have have had three options to begin with, though. ;)

    "Alternate = black white black white black white" I would call that 'alternating' as in switching from one to the other. Like in alternating current - switching from pos to neg to pos.

    How about the distinction between 'historic' and 'historical', wrongly examplified in this Gizmodo article: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2012/07/anonymous-dumps-australian-telco-data-online/

    I think pronunciation adds to the problem as well.

    And.... in an off topic... Is it "vitamin" with a short 'i" as in "bit" or "vitamin" as a long "i" as in "byte" (it's the first "i" I am referring to too. ;)

    Guys, I think it comes down to whether you side with British or US English use of English.

    The U.S. use is set out in Strunk and Whites "Elements of Style" p.40 in the third edition:
    Alternate, Alternative. The words are not always interchangeable as nouns or adjectives. The first means every other one in a series; the second, one of two possibilities. As the other one of a series of two, an alternate may stand for "a substitute" , but an alternative , although used in a similar sense, connotes a matter of choice that is never present with alternate. "As the flooded road left them no alternative, they took the alternate route."
    Now available as a free book as it's out of copyright. http://www.feedbooks.com/book/3697

    Strunk and White is American, though. This is what the Oxford Dictionary says about this use of Alternate:

    In American usage, however, alternate can also be used to mean ‘available as another choice’: an alternate plan called for construction to begin immediately rather than waiting for spring. This American use of alternate is still regarded as incorrect by many people in Britain.

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