Q&A: Alterior vs ulterior motives

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're altering perceptions…

Q: Hi AWC, my friend recently accused me of having “alterior motives”. Was I right to be offended?

A: Absolutely. There’s no such word. It should be “ulterior motives”.

Q: I know, right?

A: Out of curiosity, what was the situation?

Q: They were upset that I was only turning up to their house to use their pool and not to see them.

A: Were you?

Q: Well, it’s been very hot lately.

A: Fair enough.

Q: Why do people get this one wrong?

A: It’s likely due to the fact that “ulterior” isn’t a very common word itself – and they probably heard it first and thought that “alterior” fit the meaning of “an alternative motive” for doing something.

Q: Okay, that could be it. So where did “ulterior” come from?

A: As you might guess, the word looks (and is) very Latin – turning up in English in the 1640s as an adjective meaning “more distant, more remote, on the farther side”. Its root word was “ulter” – meaning “beyond” and it’s related to words like “ultimate” and “ultra” but also “alternative” and even “alien”.

Q: Well, aliens come from beyond the stars after all.

A: Sure.

Q: So it turns out that it’s actually “ulterior” that is linked to “alternative”, right?

A: Yes, which does make sense really.

Q: When did the term “ulterior motives” come along?

A: It showed up around the 1730s, with today’s meaning of motives that are hidden or “not at present in view or consideration”.

Q: And do we still use “ulterior” with anything other than motives?

A: Yes, but it’s fairly rare. Macquarie Dictionary lists examples as “ulterior action” or “ulterior regions” – but writers usually opt for something more obvious.

Q: You mentioned it was related to “ultra”?

A: Yes. Ultra also has the same “beyond” root as “ulterior” but marketers find it far more sexy. Everything from ultra marathons to ultra HD televisions and ultra petrol…

Q: So, to recap, there’s definitely no such word as “alterior”, right?

A: That’s right. It sounds similar to “ulterior” and looks similar to “alternative”, but that does not make it a word.

Q: Any other fun facts?

A: Yes actually. While similar Latin words interior/exterior and inferior/superior have opposites, ulterior doesn’t seem to have an antonym. Yet.

Q: Fascinating. Now, is it okay if I get changed and use your pool? Thanks…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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