Three Alternatives?

By Hugh Ashton

Recently my mother (British, somewhat pedantic) visited us, and I mentioned “three alternatives” in conversation. She immediately jumped down my throat and told me that “alternative” was one of two choices – and that “three alternatives” was a contradiction in terms.

So, rushing to my own defense, I pulled down the New Oxford American Dictionary, a dictionary I prefer to Webster’s, for a number of reasons, as detailed below, and there I found:

One of two or more available possibilities

but with a rider that added:

Some traditionalists maintain that you can only have two alternatives and that uses of more than two alternatives are erroneous. Such uses are, however, normal in modern standard English.

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.

Dictionary.com (based on Random House) misses out this important note about the modern use with two or more choices, and Merriam-Webster also ignores the whole issue entirely.

However, my older printed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary makes no mention of more than two alternatives.

So who was right, my mother or I? Well, it depends on the dictionary you use, it appears. But it just shows the importance of having at least one alternative to your main reference book when you are checking these things.

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24 Responses to “Three Alternatives?”

  • mand

    I’m with your mother on this, sorry. I must be old-fashioned. Or knowing the Latin – alternus ‘every other’, which is from alter ‘the other (of two)’ – has spoilt me. ;0)

    I HATE ‘alternate’ used for ‘alternative’. It’s caught on so much in the UK, too, that my sons’ generation and many or most of my own don’t know it’s wrong. I’m just waiting to be corrected for ‘alternative’ by someone telling me no such word exists…

    I’m no Luddite about semantic shift, but this is a clear case of the language being impoverished because we have no one word any more that means ‘do one and then the other and the first again repeatedly’ – it’s taken on the same meaning as ‘alternative’ and thus is lost.

  • Precise Edit

    I’m with Mand on “alternate” vs. “alternative.” A person who uses these words interchangeably, or who uses the incorrect word, loses the ability to communicate his idea clearly.

    And I’m mostly with Hugh on using “alternative” to mean 2 or more options. Yes, I agree with your mother that “alternative” is for 2 and only 2 options, but I can accept your usage because it doesn’t damage meaning.

    On the other hand, if I see this use of “alternative” in a document I’m editing, I change it to “options.” (Also, I can’t accept “optional alternatives.”)

    So…I agree with your mother that this sentence is correct: “John proposed an alternative plan.”

    And I can accept the sentence “We have three alternatives to John’s plan.” After all, each “alternative” plan stands alone in opposition to the original plan. Each plan is an alternative inasmuch as each alternative and the original plan make 2 options. With three possible plans in opposition to the original, you have 3 alternatives.

    This is a bit like using “There are no secrets between friends” when referring to multiple pairs of friends (as opposed to “among”).

    Good discussion, Hugh. I’m going to follow this one and see what you and others say.

  • Hazel

    I’m definitely with your mother, and mine, on this issue. If there’s more than two then I use options (as PreciseEdit says). Personally I hate, and semantics does get the heat up, the word alternate.

  • mand

    All the little bits i didn’t quite say, Precise Edit has said!
    Especially the ‘can accept your usage because it doesn’t damage meaning’ and can’t accept “optional alternatives” bits.

  • Brad K.

    According to my Chambers dictionary, alternate as a verb transitive is somewhat connected to even-odd alternation – one on one side, one on the other, in a repeating even-odd pairing.

    An alternator, for instance, is a generator of alternating current; which properly reverses phases uniformly each cycle. Other electrical functions are, of course, possible.

    As a noun, an alternate can be a deputy, a substitute.

    Alternative often means “tree hugger” – alternative energy, alternative technology, alternative fuel, alternative delivery (birth at home vs. formal medical facility). This seems to me to be more politically motivated jargon, which has nearly become language drift.

    Is this chicken-and-egg question, about how many alternatives one can alternate between, similar to “He couldn’t decide on who to ask to the dance. Either Mary or Esther or Natalie would be fun and entertaining, though Ginger was still angry over that spilled drink last week.” I mean, “either” is kind of like alternate, often used with two distinct choices.

    Then there is dilemma (two choices) that is often used when there are more than two choices or alternatives. I seldom here “lemma” used to describe a problem. “Herb faced the lemma of taking Ginger to the movies, to dinner, to the dance, or to visit her grandmother in Rest Haven Hills Home for the Aged and Decrepit.” More often I would see “dilemma” used instead of “lemma”. But that is just me. And I made up the name of the Rest .. pit non-existing facility, for no reason and no intent to malign anyone seeking care for those that need supervised care beyond what is possible in a home environment. Really. Choosing to explain the benign and non-editorial nature of the example rather than re-write it was a mild dilemma. Or lemma.

  • Precise Edit

    (Warning: I’m about to be a bit tongue-in-cheek.)

    @Brad: So if we only have one word to use (e.g., “alternative”), we have a “lemma,” but because we have two choices, we have a “dilemma”?

    “Mr. President, our lemma is to raise taxes.”
    “No, we have a dilemma. We could also reduce spending.” [momentary silence followed by hysterical laughing]

  • codebeard

    “So who was right, my mother or me?”

    Shouldn’t it be “my mother or I?” I thought the word ‘who’ refers to an object not a subject.

  • Cassandra Jade

    I’ve always felt three should be options or choices rather than alternatives, though I didn’t know why until reading this post. Thanks for an interesting discussion.

  • Hugh Ashton

    @codebeard – yes, I did consider this exact point when I was writing the piece. I originally wrote “my mother or I” – it sounded too pedantic for my liking, though.

    I’m not arguing about “alternate” versus “alternative” – I’ve had to get used to describing my novel as “alternate history” to American readers, though it grates on my inner ear.

    The whole business with the Latin derivation of “alternative” is discussed in the New Oxford American. By the way, it’s also the dictionary that is included as part of Apple’s OS X system. When Steve Jobs was running NeXT, he bundled Mirriam-Webster’s with NeXTSTEP – I wonder what brought about that change?

  • Klepto

    I’ve never heard anyone say alternative was only for two choices, so I guess we only speak current jargon here. It’s not uncommon to hear “What are our alternatives?” Obviously meaning “If Plan-A doesn’t work do we have other choices?”
    The meaning is clear in that sense and I don’t see a problem with it.

    The only case I can think of someone using “alternate” like “alternative” is the sentence “Do you have an alternate plan?” But that means “Do you have another idea we could switch to?” so I don’t believe it muddles the meaning at all. Other than that I generally hear alternate used in its “switch back and forth” definition.

    I don’t think it’s that big of a problem. Although I can understand words losing their power and meaning through continued misuse these two are hardly in that group.

  • Jan Timmons

    Pedantic? In what sense? When I saw, “So who was right, my mother or me?”, I felt that your previous discussion lost credibility. Why determine correct usage in one area, but err in another?

  • Hugh Ashton

    @Jan Timmons – good point. I can’t argue it, but somehow it feels wrong.

    “Either my mother or I was correct” is obviously correct.
    “Was it my mother or I who spoke to you?”
    “Was it my mother or me to whom you spoke?”
    “Was it my mother or I who was correct?”
    “Who was correct?” “I!” (sounds wrong, though it is grammatically right). I think 99% of people would answer “Me!” and probably write it, too.

  • Jan Timmons

    @Hugh, I know that sometimes proper usage might sound wrong, but my argument is that we (those who know better) should not contribute to poor grammar, particularly not in a website such as yours. Perhaps one solution might be to write a parenthetical explanation, such as your:
    (sounds wrong, though it is grammatically right) in your response to my comment, above this.

  • Emma

    I also agree with Precise Edit, in that most of the time, I would see “alternative” as meaning one of two … but there are times when it could be one of more than two.

    http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=alternate has quite a nice summary of the 3 (alternative??) pronunciations of the word – though I wasn’t sure if the one listed as “American” was a verb or an adjective.

  • mand

    Emma, many thanx for that howjsay talking dictionary! I’ve bookmarked it. I wouldn’t rely on it 100% – eg it gives ‘Asperger’s’ with the soft g sound but without the hard g as an *alternative* (which i’m pretty sure Hans Asperger would have used, being Austrian) – but there are quite a few words i’ve never been sure of or keep forgetting how to say. For non-native speakers it must be a godsend.

    I took the American ‘alternate’ as the adjective, but i’m not American so can’t be sure.

  • M.

    On one hand My Collins says that alternative is a possibility of choice between two or more things. So I’m with you Hugh Ashton.

    On the other hand my native language dictionary states that you can have an alternative only between two things that exclude each other.

  • Adam

    I think this is one of those lovely topics which people get too wrapped up in a strict and incomplete definition instead of using logic.

    Here’s a bad example of me trying to work through this logically:

    On – Off = Collection of 2 options.
    I’m on. My alternative state is off.
    I have 1 alternative.

    Low Medium High = Collection of 3 options.
    I’m set to low – I have an alternative of medium
    I’m set to low – I have an alternative of high
    I’m set to low – my other options are medium and high
    I have more than 1 alternative.

    The plural of alternative isn’t geese – I checked – it’s alternatives.

    An alternative doesn’t have more than 1 option – but you can have more than 1 alternative.

  • Tony Hearn

    I think some of you are confusing ‘grammar’ and ‘register’. Register refers to the ‘level’ of language being used. The way you speak to your friends informally will be different fro the way you would speak in a formal interview. They tend to have different language patterns. ”Me’ as what grammarians call a disjunctive pronoun (Who did that? – Me!) is normal and accepted in all but the most formal spoken English on both sides of the Atlantic. Written language, however, is often more formal. Even so, modern writing tends to be less ‘high’ and formal, so even here the more natural sounding ‘me’ is as likely to be encountered as ‘I’.

    We should be aware first that ‘Grammar’ can only ever be descriptive: efforts to legislate for what people say and write are ultimately doomed. This does not, of course, take away the desirability of avoiding loose and unclear speaking and writing, nor of referring to the grammarians for guidance! And second, that attempts to lay down grammatical rule for English that properly apply to a highly inflected language like Latin are wholly inappropriate and lead on the one hand to unnatural and stilted use and on the other to unnecessary crises of conscience on the part of speakers and writers!

  • mand

    Hear, hear, Tony. {applause}

    I followed your link… Hey, you’re you! I know you!
    :0)

  • commonsense….

    I prefer to use alternate and alternative to mean different things (much like infer and imply). An alternate is a different method of accomplishing the same goal. The alternative is not to pursue that goal. An option is something that can be, but doesn’t have to be done while implementing one of the alternates. To me, this is quite clear, and adds a certain rigor to the usage, in that by using one word or another, one can imply different things, without having to go to greater lengths to explain what is meant.
    In other words, an ALTERNATE juror would be used in place of a different juror, while the ALTERNATIVE to a juror might be a trial heard only by a judge, or a formal mediation or arbitration hearing without a jury involved.

    A company that wanted to build a fertilizer plant might consider one alternate based on chemical process A, and competing alternates based on other chemical processes. An option might be to build a warehouse along with the fertilizer plant, no matter which alternate was selected. The alternative is not to build a fertilizer plant (in which case one might buy an existing fertilizer plant, instead).

  • Chris Hobbs

    On the subject of “my mother and I” being too formal although correct, I have an even worse tale.

    A little while back, I made a CD of photographs to be taken to a local shop for printing. I labelled the CD “photo’s” (with the apostrophe). My wife remonstrated (something she does keenly) and asked why there was an apostrophe. I said that the word was an abbreviation for “photographs” and the apostrophe indicated missing letters. She said that ignorant people might see the CD and conclude that I didn’t know how to write a simple plural.

    So, I was being told to make a deliberate grammatical mistake (and not use the apostrophe) so that ignorant people would not think that I was (also) ignorant.

  • mand

    Chris, i would say that ‘photo’ is a clipped form rather than an abbreviation, thus a word in its own right, and so using the apostrophe is still incorrect… sorry!

    Guess where i have found an explanation of this: here on Daily Writing Tips.

  • Chris Hobbs

    Mand: But that would mean writing

    “cell’ ‘phone”

    as

    “cell phone”

    without the two apostrophes. Where’s the fun in that?

  • mand

    Fun? You want fun?

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