The words alternate and alternative are closely related, but they can't be used interchangeably in all cases. Even native English speakers get these mixed up.
As a verb, alternate (the last syllable rhymes with late) means to happen by turns, to take turns, or to exchange places.
As a noun, alternate (the last syllable rhymes with net) refers to a substitute--someone who is prepared to take the place of someone else.
As an adjective, alternate (again, the last syllable rhymes with net) means occurring by turns or being one of two or more choices.
As a noun, alternative refers to one of two or more possibilities or something that remains to be chosen.
As an adjective, alternative means offering a choice (between or among two or more possibilities) or something different from the usual or conventional.
See the usage notes below.
- Each year, the names of hurricanes alternate between male and female.
- Each year since 1989, a turkey--and its alternate--have been pardoned by the president. An alternate is chosen just in case the first bird can't perform its duties.
remember when you used to keep the car on the street and switch it from
one side of the street to the other every night, because of the alternate-side
(Calvin Trillin, Tepper Isn't Going Out. Random House, 2001)
- A nurse and a physical therapist visit my grandmother on alternate days.
- The alternative was to attempt to land the plane on a highway.
- My brother attends an alternative school for bright and independent students.
- [U]sage issues are associated with these two words. The
first is whether there can be more than two alternatives. This question
was raised in the last half of the 19th century because the Latin word alter, from which alternative is derived, means
the other of two. Fortunately, this issue has been laid to rest.
Contemporary commentators unanimously consider it pedantry to reject 'We
have three alternatives.'
"The second issue is whether the adjective alternate can be used as a synonym of alternative, as in 'alternate plan,' 'alternate date,' or 'alternate music.' This use of the adjective is obviously closely related to the meaning of the noun alternate and is well enough established to be recorded by all dictionaries. Nevertheless, since many commentators still consider it a mistake, it is not recommended in formal writing."
(Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, Guide to Canadian English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2007)
Pitfalls to Avoid
"Alternatives are joined by and, not or: "The alternatives are victory and (not or) surrender. And they are not to be modified by other: 'The alternative (not the other alternative) is to visit France.' The combination the other alternative is as redundant as two alternatives. Do not say, 'They had no alternatives.' Say 'They had no alternative.'"
(Morton S. Freeman, The Wordwatcher's Guide to Good Writing & Grammar. Writer's Digest Books, 1990)
- Alternative and Choice
"[A]lternative carries with it two nuances absent from choice. First, alternative may suggest adequacy for some purpose (an alternative to driving); and second, it may suggest compulsion to choose (the alternatives are liberty and death)."
(Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009)
Practice(a) It's a good idea to _____ strength-building exercises with aerobic exercises.
(b) An _____ who replaces a juror takes the same oath and has the same authority as the other jurors.
(c) Because we couldn't afford to purchase a house, our only _____ was renting.
(d) Many fathers and mothers who do not have custody of their children pick them up on _____ weekends.
Answers to Practice Exercises: Alternate and Alternative
(a) It's a good idea to alternate strength-building exercises with aerobic exercises.
(b) An alternate who replaces a juror takes the same oath and has the same authority as the other jurors.
(c) Because we couldn't afford to purchase a house, our only alternative was renting.
(d) Many fathers and mothers who do not have custody of their children pick them up on alternate weekends.
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