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Alternate vs. alternative

An alternate is something or someone that serves in place of another. An alternative is a second option that does not replace the first. For example, when a road undergoing maintenance is closed to traffic, you have to take an alternate route. But when an under-construction road is still accessible to traffic, you might choose to take an alternative route to avoid congestion. The first option is still there, and the alternative gives you a choice.

The words are also adjectives. As an adjective, alternate means (1) happening in turns, or (2) serving in place of another. Alternative means (1) providing a choice between two or more things, or (2) existing outside the mainstream.

Of course, alternate also works as a verb meaning to take turnsAlternative has no verb sense.

Examples


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Here are a few examples of the words used as nouns:

The producers … are planning to tap the cast member Matthew James Thomas to serve as an alternate for the leading man. [NY Times]

There is no medium-term alternative to the dollar for the international monetary system. [Reuters]

Portman portrays Nina Sayres, prima ballerina, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, while Mila Kunis is her alternate, seductive and potentially lethal Lily. [Waffle Reviews]

The Motorola Droid 2 Global is a solid Android smartphone for globe-trotting executives looking for a BlackBerry alternative. [CNET]

A consultant last week raised hopes among St. Louis Park residents that there might be an alternative to rerouting freight trains through city neighborhoods [Star Tribune]

And here they are adjectives:

For those of you who use this route, signs will be up to direct you to alternate routes. [News 12]

No alternative energy source currently in development is near ready for prime time. [Slate]

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Comments

  1. “Preventative” is a noun; “preventive” is an adjective. That is the main difference. It’s not just a matter of opinion!

    • Anonymous says:

      That would be a nice distinction, but it’s definitely not borne out in practice. See our post on “preventative” and “preventive” for more. 

  2. ‘alternate’ routes should be ‘alternative’ since the plural noun implies more than one choice. The use of ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’ is different in the UK and much of the English speaking world from the US. ‘Alternate’ is used when things move from one option to another in sequence, from the verb ‘to alternate’. When there is a choice,’ alternative’ is preferred. ‘Alternate’ as a noun (the stand-in actor example )would be ‘alternative’ since it would be an adjectival noun – implying the word ‘choice’- and could be someone else entirely. The American use of these words is rapidly entering the UK and, since gtammatical ‘correctness’ is only determined by use, we will no doubt convert to the American forms in time, but to speak or write of an ‘alternate’ choice still sounds wrong to UK ears!Much simpler to have ‘alternate’ only when changing in sequence and ‘alternative’ for all choices, whether two or more.  

    • Grammarist says:

      Thank you. We came across this view of “alternate” (that its use in the sense “serving in place of another” is questionable to some) in our original research for this post and considered mentioning it. But we always try to discuss words as they are now used rather than as they are traditionally used, and we find the adjectival use of “alternate” as a synonym of “substitute” or “replacement” to be very common throughout the English-speaking world, at least in news writing. Some examples from U.K. publications can be found here: http://goo.gl/8dZB1. And more from Australian/New Zealand publications: http://goo.gl/tVNOs. Though the older sense of “alternate” remains, the inevitable transition you mention appears already well under way. 

      But we should probably edit the post to expand on “alternate” and offer some examples of its use in the “every other” sense, as that sense is still common (in the U.S. as well as everywhere else).

  3. The described distinction is so foreign to my British ears that I’m not really sure that I have understood it. Let me see if I have got the American usage correct:-

    An alternate is like an understudy or a back-up – something that will only be used if the normally used item is unavailable. An alternative gives a free choice; you might choose one thing one day and another another day, or stick with the same one all the time, or make any other pattern of use.

    Is that right?

    In Britain, an alternative is one of a set of things that you can choose from, but unlike
    Americans we wouldn’t worry about it if the size of the set has temporarily been reduced to one. (If the set was always of size one, you have no alternatives, just the one forced choice.) For instance, if a road is closed and only one possible route is left, it is always signed “Alternative Route”, never “Alternate Route”

    For us, alternates alternate. There have to be exactly two of them, and they take turns in an absolutely regular way, first one, then the other – like the alternating current (directions) produced by an alternator. Alternates have nothing to do with choice, forced or otherwise.

    For example, suppose a newly arrived American colleague suggested that the faculties of our college should elect alternate representatives for some committee. If my British colleagues said (as I’m sure they would) “don’t you mean ‘alternative?’”, and got the answer “no”, their next response would be to say that that would be like forming two different committees, meeting half as frequently!

    I really don’t think you should discount this position as historic, and give only the American usage on the grounds that it’s bound to drive out British (and I think probably other non-US) usage eventually. I certainly haven’t noticed the American usage of “alternate” making inroads over here – or maybe I’ve heard it occasionally but just discounted it as a mistake, as until reading this article I had no idea it was correct in any version of English.

    You say that your links show the American usage in British publications, but I’m not convinced. The Guardian article “Cryptic crosswords for beginners: alternate letters” absolutely fits the British usage of “alternate” and not the American. (Every second letter is used; the ones between are discarded ). Similarly, the Liverpool Echo quote “Under alternate weekly collections, general waste is collected one week and recycling the next, on a rolling basis” is clearly the British usage, not American. (Though personally I’d prefer “alternating”.) Similarly for “Join the regular volunteering group on Brownsea Island at 9.30am on alternate Sundays throughout the year”, and so on for link after link after link.

    There are a couple of instances of the American usage – for instance a Guardian film-review gives a quote from The Hollywood Recorder in indirect speech, but doesn’t bother to Britishize “alternate” to “alternative”. There’s an example in a Daily Mail article, but again it is from Hollywood and repeating the words of an American. An FT article about supply-routes uses “alternate” once and “alternative” once, where normal British usage would be “alternative” both times. But, unless I’ve misunderstood American usage, the FT isn’t following that, either – it uses “alternate” when there is a free choice and “alternative” when it’s Hobson’s choice, so I think the “alternate” was just a mistake. There is a cast-iron example in the Economist, but it’s in a BTL comment on a blog about President Obama’s second inauguration, and presumably by an American.

    In short, I don’t think we have a distinction between modern and archaic usage here, but between US and UK usage. I can’t speak for other English-speaking countries, of course.

    • Grammarist says:

      Yes, you understand it perfectly. An alternate, in that mostly American sense, is a substitute for someone or something that is not available. In sports, for instance, an alternate captain might stand in when the usual captain is out with injury. “Alternate route,” as mentioned above, is probably the most common use. Another use that comes up often is “alternate juror”; the last time I served jury duty, there were six jurors and three alternates who were there in case any of the main jurors had to be removed. It’s the official term they use in the courts. And then there’s also the common phrase “alternate universe,” referring to a hypothetical substitute universe that is a little different from this one in some specified way.

      In the U.S., this adjectival sense of “alternate” has all but replaced the adjectival sense having to do with taking turns. The taking-turns sense is certainly not unheard of, though, and when used in unambiguous contexts it’s not liable to cause confusion. But the funny thing is that when the word is a verb, it still does have to do with taking turns and doesn’t ever, as far as we know, mean “to substitue.” For instance, we wouldn’t say, “That route is alternating for the usual one.” And we would say, for instance, “He alternates between beer and wine.” (I’m finding it hard to come up with good examples for this one, but you know what I mean.)

      I think we were a little too dismissive of the other comment from 11 months ago. What we were seeing at the time was a considerable number of instances of “alternate” in the American sense used in U.K. texts (the link we provided covers only a small portion of what we look at for these things), but it’s clear that the older adjectival sense of “alternate” still very much prevails in the U.K., and we definitely will give the issue a deeper look in the near future and flesh out this post so that it can please everyone. I know we said 11 months ago that we would consider editing, but this time we’re really going to put it on the to-do list.

      By the way, thank you for all your comments. We’re finding them all insightful, and we hope you’ll keep them coming. You can also email us at [email protected] if you have feedback that doesn’t fit well on any single post.

    • 12July1947_Clifford_Martin says:

      You are right. The Daily Mail uses a great number of articles that were published in the US and doesn’t bother to change them, and for that reason many regard the DM as a rag. You’ll often see in their articles, US usage such as Color, Labor, Jewelry, Alternate and Car Hood – these grate to most English people.

  4. WilliamOckhamensis says:

    You might comment on American vs. British usage: if you have a choice between two courses of action, many Americans would say that you have two alternatives where British writers would say you have only one (you can choose A, or, alternatively, B). If you only one course of action is open, British authors would say that you have no alternative (or no choice), whereas many Americans would say you have only one alternative (or choice). As usual, British English is more precise and makes finer distinctions.

    • No, I’m pretty sure that if you have two choices, Americans would also say you have one alternative. The word alternative implies a choice outside of the one you already have. So if you already have one default option, but can also choose one other option, that means you have one alternative. It doesn’t matter which of the two options is the ‘default’. You can only have two alternatives to your choice if there are three options.

      I don’t know why Americans would say that if you have one choice, that’s an ”alternative”… I mean, there is nothing to alternate between. No, I’ve never heard Americans say that having one choice is an ‘alternative’. Like this page says, ‘alternate’ simply means that there is a different option that replaces the first option, meaning you have no choice in the matter: you can only choose one option. That makes sense, because if you have no alternative (no choice), only an *alternate* option, why would you call it an alternative nonetheless? There is no choice, therefore there is no alternative. I think the American English makes more sense in this case.

    • Chris Johnston says:

      I’ve never encountered an American who would call a single course of action an “alternative”, or two courses of action as “two alternatives”. “Two alternatives” means there are three options, the standard or desired course of action, or one of the two alternatives. If you said to an American “Oh, you don’t want to do what I asked? Well, then I’ll give you two alternatives…” The vast majority of Americans would without a doubt expect to hear two more options in addition to the first. If you encountered an American who argued with you on that point, he’s probably arguing it at home as well.

  5. Jerry48 says:

    In the days when I, as a mathematician, taught statistics in a FE College in Scotland, I used the phrases “null hypothesis” and “alternative hypothesis” when discussing inferential statistics. This is as I had been taught myself at St Andrews University. My colleague was a Psychology lecturer, who had more or less taught herself statistics from textbooks (mainly American publications); she insisted on using the phrase “alternate hypothesis” with her students who would then get into heated arguments (out of loyalty) with me about my use of the word “alternative”. I had a devil of a job, not always successful, to persuade them otherwise. The 20-year battle ended only when I retired!

  6. aquino1225 says:

    “Alternate” in the sense of a person who serves (or is designated to serve if needed) in place of another (like an understudy in theater–someone designated as the replacement should a person in some position or role be unable to serve) represents a well-established but rather specialized meaning of the word in N. American English.

    The post’s suggestion that this usage reflects a more general distinction between how “alternate” and “alternative” are used strikes me as misleading. I don’t think most Americans would recognize the suggested distinction between the meanings of an “alternate route” and an “alternative route.”

    I think the OED gets the situation just right: “Alternate” is used, in N. America, as a synonym for “alternative” *in a few particular senses of the latter term*.

    But “alternate” also has its own meanings/uses, not shared with “alternative”, like the one mentioned above (a person who serves as a replacement for another) and the various meanings related to the verb “to alternate”.

  7. good

  8. Leeerooooy Mmnnjeeeenkinsss says:

    The American English usage makes sense to me. If you have two choices, Americans — as well as Brits, as far as I know — would say you have one alternative. The word alternative implies a choice outside of the one you already have: if you have one option but also one other option, that means the second is an alternative. The word ‘alternative’ cannot be used to mean the same thing as ‘choice’. You can only have two alternatives to your choice if there are three options.

    I’ve never heard Americans say that having one choice is an ‘alternative’ — there is nothing to alternate between if you only have one choice! Like this page says, ‘alternate’ (adjective) means a different option that replaces the first option, meaning you have no choice in the matter. That makes sense, because if you have no alternative to choose from — no choice, only an *alternate* option — why would you call it an alternative nonetheless? There is no choice, therefore there is no alternative. I think the American English makes more sense in this case.

  9. Ruth Griffith says:

    I really appreciate this explanation! I’m a librarian who needed to make a list of a Science Fiction subgenre, called “Alternative Histories” in the catalog subject headings, but the actual book subtitles use the term “alternate history”. It looks to me now that the catalog subject heading is incorrect. An example of such a book is V-S Day, by Allen Steele: “With a gift for visionary fiction that ‘would make Robert A. Heinlein proud’ (Entertainment Weekly), three-time Hugo Award-winning author Allen Steele now imagines an alternate history rooted in an actual historical possibility: What if the race to space had occurred in the early days of World War II?” If I understand the above explanation correctly, an “alternative history” would be more like the “choose your own adventure” books, where the reader can choose among a number of possible plots.

  10. In the UK the word alternate (pron. alter-nayt) is a verb and means to swap back and forth from one state to another as in the case of alternating current. If two (or more) people alternate they take it in turns.

    Alternative (pron. alter-natt-iv) is the noun and adjective which implies a choice of states.

    As for whether “two alternatives” implies two or three possible choices, that depends on the context. As an example of this, if I had two pots of paint of different colours I might say “there are two alternatives, which would you like?” before starting. On the other hand if the painting had already been done or started and was not liked I might say “there is an alternative colour!”. Two alternatives become one once a default choice has already been made or is expected to occur.

    The American mis-use of the word alternate looks very strange to British eyes and causes me, at least, to have to re-read.

  11. 12July1947_Clifford_Martin says:

    The two words have quite different meanings:
    Alternate, is when something cycles from one extreme to another, for example, alternating current which cycles from positive to negative, or a pedestrian crossing where the lines are alternately black and white.
    Alternative is when you have a choice of two or more things. The road is closed due to a car crash therefore please take an alternative route.
    An Alternate route signifies that you drive to work by the same route on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while on Tuesdays, Thurdays and Saturdays you go by the only other route – I think you will agree that it’s absurd.

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