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.
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!