Ulterior and Alterior

By Maeve Maddox

A reader brought alterior to my attention by asking if a use of “ulterior motive” he read in an article should have been “alterior motive.”

Although I found several speculative “definitions” of alterior on various sites, neither the OED nor Merriam-Webster offers an entry for this word.

Because it seems always to occur with motive or motives, I conclude that alterior is an error for ulterior.

The adjective ulterior derives from Latin ulterior: “further, more distant.” An ulterior motive is one that lies beyond the apparent motive. For example, when a popular product develops a feature that makes the product more convenient, the apparent motive is to make the product easier for the customer to use. The ulterior motive is to earn more money by selling more merchandise.

The mistaken use of alterior is especially common on sites related to emotional involvements, television, sports, and political opinion. Here are some examples, with corrections:

INCORRECT: I’m not convinced he’s doing anything out of the kindness of his heart for women or anyone. Feels like he always has alterior motives.—Soap opera blog.
CORRECT : I’m not convinced he’s doing anything out of the kindness of his heart for women or anyone. Feels like he always has ulterior motives.

INCORRECT: The thing that bothers me the most is that there is no honesty or real emotion into anything that they say. Everything they say has an alterior motive.—Therapy blog.
CORRECT : The thing that bothers me the most is that there is no honesty or real emotion in anything that they say. Everything they say has an ulterior motive.

INCORRECT: People like to put on fronts and might have alterior motives when you don’t have a shared history that can easily fool you.—Quora user.
CORRECT : People like to put on fronts and might have ulterior motives when you don’t have a shared history that can easily fool you.

INCORRECT: The [remarks of] the salesman sounded like they came from a politician. He seemed to dodge every question, whether it be from lack of knowledge or alterior motives I don’t know.—Yelp review.
CORRECT : The [remarks of] the salesman sounded like they came from a politician. He seemed to dodge every question, whether it be from lack of knowledge or ulterior motives I don’t know.

INCORRECT: I usually appreciate good sportsmanship, but that was just weird. It was very obvious that there was an alterior motive, because of the way the groups were separated. —TV fan blog.
CORRECT : I usually appreciate good sportsmanship, but that was just weird. It was very obvious that there was an ulterior motive, because of the way the groups were separated. 

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3 Responses to “Ulterior and Alterior”

  • Charles Ray

    Is it possible that this incorrect use of ‘alterior’ instead of ‘ulterior’ stems from the resemblance ‘alterior’ has to ‘alternate’?

  • Philipp

    Following up on Charles Ray, might the confusion about alterior stem from the latin adjective

    alter, altera, alterum ?

    The masculin genetiv is alterium, so not too far off.

  • venqax

    I would doubt that most confusion of alterior for ulterior has its source in any comparison to Latin. It’s akin to saying people who really can’t tell something from shinola are unable to do so because of the similarity in the atomic weights of some of the chemical components of the two substances. No, I don’t think it’s that.

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