Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Your Choice: Alternating Between Alternatives

Cities that have hard winters have no "alternative" and must repair roads in the summer. And when they do, they need to provide motorists with "alternate" routes.

That sentence illustrates the difference between "alternative" and "alternate."

The two words can sometimes "alternate" places with each other. Knowing the nuance each brings, however, can make a sentence more precise, or less.

As a noun, "alternate" means a substitute, as in the first "alternate" on the jury, someone who will step in if another juror cannot serve. As an adjective, it has two similar but distinct meanings. One is the substitute, the "alternate" juror. The other is something that takes turns: "The club will meet on alternate Fridays," meaning it meets one Friday, does not meet the next, but meets the Friday after that. "Alternate" is also a verb.

As a noun, "alternative" is an option or a choice, as in "My doctor gave me the alternatives of eating more fish, tofu, or beans instead of red meat." Some usage experts, apparently leaning on the Latin root of "alter" as meaning "the other of two," have argued that an "alternative" offers only two choices, but they have been shouted down enough that they can be ignored. "Alternative" is not a verb.

It’s where "alternative" is used as an adjective that the differences with "alternate" come most into play. Some of the "choices" involved in having "alternatives" may indeed be considered substitutes, or "alternates," but not all of them. "Alternative" story forms in journalism, for example, such as graphics or Q & A forms, could be complements to "traditional" forms or be used in their place. But few people call them "alternate" story forms.

In many stories, though, writers use "alternate" when they mean "alternatives," in effect confusing substitutes and choices. "The City Council was presented with three alternate ways to deal with the budget crisis," for example, should have been "three alternative ways." Even better, "three alternatives." And therein lies a test to see if you want the adjective "alternative" or "alternate": If you make the adjective into a noun, which would you use? Few people would say "The City Council was presented with three alternates to deal with the budget crisis."

As a second test, if you can use the noun "substitute," you probably want "alternate"; if you can say "choice," you probably want "alternative." "The City Council was presented with three substitutes to deal with the budget crisis" makes less sense than "The City Council was presented with three choices to deal with the budget crisis."

Garner’s Modern American Usage lists the use of "alternate" as an adjective when "alternative" is meant at Stage 3 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning it’s not fatal to use it. But given the alternative—lack of clarity in your writing—you should choose the alternate route.


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday August 31st 2012, 10:32 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
In this column you always clarify distinct usage of common English words or phrases about which we never pay any serious attention. Because, I read this column with great enthusiasm, that generated higher interests day by day, and I now wait eagerly for this column.
From now on, I will search for an " alternate" route to access to your writings as it will please my curiosity.
Saturday September 1st 2012, 2:11 AM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)
I read Begum F's frequent comments with great pleasure. I have understood that Begum is a non-native speaker of English, working to improve his skills in reading, understanding and speaking the language. I applaud his efforts in doing so with the help of the VT. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were were similar vocabulary programs for other languages!

Best wishes,
Rosina Wilson
California, USA
Top Speller
Saturday September 1st 2012, 2:12 AM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)
I read Begum F's frequent comments with great pleasure. I have understood that Begum is a non-native speaker of English, working to improve his skills in reading, understanding and speaking the language. I applaud his efforts in doing so with the help of the VT. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were were similar vocabulary programs for other languages!

Best wishes,
Rosina Wilson
California, USA
Top Speller
Saturday September 1st 2012, 11:46 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Well, Ms. Rosina your comment boosted my enthusiasm for comment passing and surely I am not a native English person. Your idea of VT for other language is indeed unique and hopefully we will note those changes probably in our life time.
My great impression for VT(English)columns is that if we read these columns regularly, we do not need to watch TV or listen to Radio or read a Newspaper at all. We get all information surrounding us from around all the nations on this earth here in this limited space. All of them possess special talents and expose the necessary information in most articulate way.

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