While editing a document for a client last week, I noticed their use of “alternate”, and it prompted me to write this post.
Technically, the two words don’t mean the same thing, but that’s been changing recently.
Alternate typically means—at least as an adjective—“every other”, as in the following:
- The Hot Pepper Support Group meets on alternate Thursdays.
- When making lasagne, use alternate layers of noodles and pasta sauce.
- Make sure you colour alternate rows on that table when you print the report.
Alternative, on the other hand, means “another possibility”, as in:
- We need alternative desserts. I’m getting tired of cookies and ice cream.
- I’ve been wearing the same hairstyle for 20 years; I’m ready for an alternative.
- Let’s skip fast food for a while. What are some alternative restaurants we could try?
That being said, “alternate” is slowly gaining acceptance (especially in the USA) as an alternative for “alternative” (Get it?). Here are a few examples:
- “constituting an alternative” (Random House Dictionary)
- “constituting an alternative” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
- “alternative” (Cambridge Dictionary)
- “chiefly North American another term for alternative” (Oxford Dictionary)
- “allowing you to choose a different plan, thing, or situation from one you already have” (Macmillan Dictionary)
In formal circumstances, you’d probably be better keeping the two words separate. In more casual circumstances, you could likely get away with using “alternate” in place of “alternative”, but tread carefully.
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