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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