Alternate vs. Alternative

By Maeve Maddox

One of my favorite DWT commenters took me to task for my use of alternate instead of alternative in this passage:

in modern English writing, kn is an alternate spelling for the sound /n/, and … igh is an alternate spelling of the long i sound…

I value his comments, so I have examined his criticism carefully, including the quotation from a previous DWT post that seems to support his belief that neither British nor American usage permits the use of alternate in the way I have used it:

There was also a note about the difference between the use of “alternate” and “alternative” in American and British English – anyone writing for both markets should be very well aware of this distinction – it’s a very important linguistic distinction and is not to be ignored. –Hugh Ashton

The note Ashton refers to is from the New Oxford American Dictionary entry he consulted when his mother objected to his use of “three alternatives.” His original purpose was to find out if a person could speak of more than two alternatives. According to his mother and other traditionalists, one can speak of only two alternatives. According to the NOAD, however, speaking of more than two alternatives is “normal in modern standard English.”

Ashton mentions “the difference between the use of ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’ in American and British English,” and urges freelancers writing for “both markets” to be aware of the distinction. I do not think that he is saying that British usage and American usage do not differ. But even if he is saying that, I have to disagree.

For one thing, American speakers use alternate as a noun meaning “a person designated to replace another in the event the other person is unable to fulfill his duties.” British usage does not use alternate as a noun.

It is an easy step from using alternate as a noun meaning “a substitute,” to using alternate as an adjective meaning “substitute,” or “alternative,” as in “alternate juror” or “alternate route.”

The following examples will illustrate that alternate used in this sense is common in standard American English:

To avoid having to retry a case when a juror is excused before the end of trial (for example, because of illness), the court may seat a few extra or “alternate” jurors to hear the trial and be available to replace any juror who is excused. Regular and alternate jurors sit together during the trial. Some judges do not tell jurors which ones are the alternates until the jury is ready to deliberate. State law limits how many alternate jurors the court may seat. –Oregonlaws.org/.

The Alternate Route program is a non-traditional teacher preparation program –State of New Jersey Department of Education

Alternate plans allow landowners to apply for more site specific management flexibility than the standard Forest Practices Rules allow. –State of Washington Natural Resources site.

U.S. speakers save alternative for such things as “alternative medicine” and “alternative rock.” They also use the adjective alternate in the sense of “every other.” For example, parking might be allowed in a certain area “on alternate days.” Meetings might be held “on alternate Mondays.”

British grammarians recognize the fact that American speakers do not use alternate in exactly the same way as British speakers do:

In American English, alternate is widely used as an adjective in the sense of alternative…and as a noun to mean ‘a deputy or substitute’. –Penguin Writer’s Manual, p. 56.

For an American writer, to refer to “an alternate spelling” is no more erroneous than to write honor for honour.

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4 Responses to “Alternate vs. Alternative”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I truly did believe that the arguing and complaining about the uses of “alternate” vs. “alternative” in North American English was a bunch of hair splitting. We North Americans do know what we are doing in this case. We know what alternate jurors, alternate plans, and alternate routes are. We know what “do this on alternate days” means. Note that “North American English” includes Canadian English as well as American English because these two varieties are so close to one another. There are just some spelling differences like “honor” vs. “honour”. In another prominent case, we both use “northwest” and “southeast”.

    By the way, there is an interesting German compound word in this regard: “Haarspalterei”. “Haar” means “hair” and “Spalterei” means “splitting”, so this long word translates directly as “hair splitting”.

    I do recommend that Maeve look up the meanings of “alternate interior angles” and “alternate exterior angles”, and also find out if these North American terms are also used in Great Britain.

    I still think that “harbour” and “honour” should rhyme with “velour”!
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    I have to put this kind of thing in the healthy/healthful file. That is things that really would be useful if they were observed as rules but for which there is no historical or etymological authority. It would be useful and thereby preferable if we limited healthy to mean “in good health” and “healthful” to mean “conducive to good health”. But the word healthy has apparently been used indiscrimately to mean both since forever, so you can’t formally reprimand it. All you can do is make the distinction in your own use and hope other guardians of good usage will follow.

    Personally, I object to the use of alternate to mean “another choice”, as in an alternate edition to a textbook (ubiquitous, of course, at universities no less). In such cases “alternative” is preferable in every way. The edition is not alternating with another. It is an alternative to another. Likewise, altnernative jurors would be grammatically if not necessarily jurisprudentially better. Likewise, an altnernate route is not one you take every other time, but instead of another. We don’t tell someone, “I’m sorry, but you have no alternate” meaning he has no choice. So why is it is acceptable in other contexts where alternative is obviously appropriate? I would go so far as to say that while the “alternate edition” is not wrong, the “alternative” is a better one in both cases.

    I remember once being told, quite authoritatively, that “burned” was the past tense of the verb to burn, while “burnt” was an adjective meaning something that been exposed to burning. So, “the fire burned all night, leaving burnt wood in the fireplace”. A rule that is neat, handy, and nonexistent as far as I know.

  • Marci Lindsay

    Don’t forget the American use of alternative as a noun, meaning “option.” I had no alternatives. Yikes, I think I’ve now said the words too many times in my head. Are “alternate” and “alternative” still words?!

  • Dale A. Wood

    To: Marci Lindsay.
    Concerning “I had no alternatives,” OR “I had no alternative.”
    There are some words that are used in certain ways only idiomatically.
    I encourage you to look up this phrase and see if any references in English say anything about this phase – because I don’t know.
    ———————————————————————-
    I do know that there are some word that still exist in old idiomatic phrases. You can probably find some in English.

    There is one that caught my memory in German like few others did. In old Germany and Austria, there was profession called a “Knacker”. The is still on idiomatic phrase about Knackers. Knackers went from house to house collecting the dead bones of animals and hauling them away.
    I believe that Knackers ground up those bones and then sold the bone meal as fertilizer. Naturally, there have not been any Knackers for centuries, so it is an obsolete word – but it appears in an idiomatic phrase that I don’t remember.

    I was reading a book on German idioms, mostly not to learn what the idioms mean. but rather to help me learn what all the other words meant. I was pretty industrious in my studies of German.
    D.A.W.

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