Alternate vs. Alternative
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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