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:

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.

About Kim Siever

I am a copywriter and copyeditor. I blog on writing tips mostly, but I sometimes throw in my thoughts about running a small business. Follow me on Twitter at @hotpepper.

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