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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