Alternate vs. Alternative
I want to talk about a couple words that are closely related and therefore easily — and often — confused: alternate and alternative. But before I do, let me remind you that English grammar has no formally recognized authoritative body to determine correctness. When people insist that a certain usage is “wrong” they are offering an opinion based on some lesson they have learned in the past — something a teacher told them or that they read somewhere. If you press them with the question, “Says who?” they are likely to reply with little better than “It just is.”
Correct grammar (and correct is probably not the best word) is determined arbitrarily at best. Most rules of English are agreed upon implicitly and unanimously. Others are hotly debated. And then there are the plethora of language issues that are indifferently undecided.
The words alternate and alternative are in this last category. There are some strong opinions out there, as usual, but they don’t have much more than hot air to support them. Here’s what I hope is a fair perspective:
Alternate or Alternative?
Should you say alternate route or alternative route? Should we be exploring alternate energy sources or alternative energy sources? Is a back-up catcher an alternate or an alternative?
Alternate Can Be a Verb; Alternative Can’t
There’s no confusion here. When the last syllable rhymes with gate, you’ve got a verb meaning “to perform or occur by turns.”
Stan alternated between taxidermy and competitive wood planing.
If you are looking for a verb, alternate is the only option.
No Problems with Nouns
The words are clearly differentiated as nouns. There is rarely any confusion here. An alternate is a person who substitutes for or alternates with someone else.
Jim qualified as an alternate on the Olympic hog-calling team.
An alternative is a second option.
Helga offered a bowl of borscht as an alternative to Ben’s meatball and onion sandwich.
Generally speaking, alternates are people and alternatives are non-human.
Confusion emerges when the words are used as adjectives.
Sticklers will insist that alternate be used only to mean “every other,” while only alternative be used to mean “substitute” or “replacement.” They cringe at expressions like alternate route or alternate energy source, claiming that alternative is the proper choice.
But common use, even in print, considers the two words interchangeable as adjectives referring to an option. Most dictionaries agree. It is acceptable to say either an alternate selection or an alternative selection.
Special Adjectival Uses
There are particular uses where one or the other word is preferred. When speaking in the “one after another” sense, alternate is the better adjective:
I like the alternate squares of red and green on his socks.
Alternating is a synonym of alternate in this sense.
I like the alternating squares of red and green on his socks.
It has become idiomatic to use alternative to mean “different from the usual or conventional,” as in trendy terms like alternative rock, alternative medicine, and alternative lifestyles. Don’t use alternate in this sense.
If all this is too much to comprehend, here’s my simple trick to differentiate the adjective forms of these words: If both alternate and alternative sound okay in a given context, it’s probably okay to use either one, but using alternative will be less likely to offend any grammar sticklers.
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Comments? Differing opinions? Uncovered questions? Please leave them below!