Ulterior and Alterior

By Maeve Maddox

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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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7 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.

  • sean

    In all your examples, indeed “alterior” is being used in error, with the writer meaning “ulterior”. Alterior, however, is a real word, used in critical theory and recent philosophy, referring to a culturally disempowered “other”, like a colonized population or oppressed group. (Type it into Google Scholar and you’ll see many articles using it.)

  • Zack

    It’s because people mix up “alterior” with “alternative” and “ulterior”. An alternative motive and ulterior motive both make sense, but alterior is a made up word.

  • dave

    The sites you listed where alterior is used are sites that attract those who are, shall we say, not as educated as the rest of the population.

    But fear not. Ignorance always wins in the end.

    Just know that in 20+ years we will be using alterior in lieu of ulterior.

    That’s the nature of language. Especially English, which is very flexible. Or put another way, favors the dullards.

  • Gregory darnell

    okay come now, declaring that the English language evolves because of the actions of the dullards is not only inaccurate but also attempts to place the blame of that change on a group of people that do not necessarily create that change. One of the remarkable aspects of the Rnglish language is its adaptability in incorporating and phasing out of words and phrases that derived in or had roots in other Languages. The beauty of English and the grammar rules by which the language is structured emerges when content (words of phrases) are utilized by more and more people , both of educational fortitude and of not. English is thus a language of popularity but that operates under methodologies reflected in the natural world: competition and adaptations. In other words English is a language of words that when used the most begins to set the precedent and affects the use and viability of other competing words and phrases to be used over time. This behavior of “compete or lose“ and “adapt or die” is echoed in human life everywhere. Humans run democratic governments with majority votes, people cluster together in groups to gain resources and power, even some states have their mottos of “United we stand divided we fall”. In nature we see biological populations that sustain the most members efficiently without overrunning resources as those populations which thrive and pass down their genes to subsequent generations. They outcompete those with similar interests or needs and thus have qualities to allow for high fitness in the environment in which they compete. English reflects a very similar challenging set of conditions. For example , many of the words or phrases that were invasive in the early life of computing (RAM, interface, byte, laptop, online) were not words really seen before the use of computers became popular and integrated into the populace. One wouldn’t necessarily consider the invention of computing as those afforded to dullards, as one wouldn’t consider the words and phrases coming forth from computing as choices of words for those with underaverage intellect.

    On the flip side, Words that are not used by majorities of people tend to fall into antiquity. In the very preceding sentence , the phrase used I used of “on the flip side” is just such an example, This phrase was used remarkably in the 1970s and beyond but is a phrase that denotes a particular time period and thus denotes something of a dated thought. People born in the 2000s will rarely know what that phrase will mean and why it is relevant to some generations. Thankfully for archiving historians these words and Linguistical histories are not forgotten and even enjoy a resurrection to regular usage When conditions for that word or phrase are favorable again in the lives of those speaking and using the language. For example , the word rad and cool in the English language were used in the 60s , then the 80s and have reserved as adjectives in the 2010s , showing vitality and resurgence in the language when conditions arise that offer usage again. What those conditions are and how they bring about different trends, extinctions , patterns, and emergences of other words is a subject of much more involved arguments

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