Q&A: Alternative vs alternate

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 seek out some alternative grammar medicine…

Q: What are we looking at today?

A: Well, we actually have a good suggestion from the mail bag.

Q: Do we still have an actual mail bag?

A: Yep. We found it over there in the corner next to the fax machine and a video store manager named Derek.

Q: Ahhhh! I was wondering where I’d put Derek.

A: So anyway, it’s from readers Merinda and Marj who were curious to know what the difference is between “alternate” and “alternative”…

Q: So, what IS the difference?

A: Okay, let’s start with “alternative” – which can typically be a noun or adjective meaning “available as a possibility or choice”. So for example, you might have a garden party with an alternative venue in case it rains. It’s a second choice. Or you’d have alternative routes you could take to get to the party on the day.

Q: Sounds like it will be quite a party. Who’s going?

A: Why do you always do this? There IS no garden party. We made it up.

Q: Okay fine. That old trick. I get it, don’t worry.

A: There is NO party.

Q: Please. Continue…

A: Sigh. The word “alternative” was originally defined as involving just two choices. But that rule has fallen away somewhat and now it’s common to see examples such as “there were up to six alternative sites proposed”.

Q: All seems fine so far.

A: Indeed. The trouble kicks in once “alternate” arrives on the scene.

Q: Like a disgruntled gatecrasher at a fancy party?

A: Um, yes, sure. So this time our adjective form of “alternate” usually means “every other item in a series”. For example, “I get paid on alternate weeks” or “my famous lasagne recipe called for alternate layers of meat and cheese”.

Q: Ooh, quick pasta-related question. Why is it sometimes spelt “lasagna” and other times “lasagne”?

A: A single sheet is called “lasagna” and the plural of many sheets is called “lasagne”. Just as some would say it contains “onion” and others would say it contains “onions”.

Q: Okay, so far so good.

A: But then of course, in the USA, “alternate” began to be used as an alternative to “alternative”!

Q: Don’t you mean an alternate to “alternative”?

A: Haha, well quite. The strictest of British English speakers still turn their noses up at the idea that if there is a road block, someone should take an “alternate route” or that someone might be living in an “alternate reality”… But for most of us, it has become fairly normal – even if it is disputed by some.

Q: So it seems it’s best to stick with “alternative” instead of the alternative.

A: You’re enjoying this aren’t you?

Q: Very much so.

A: It is however worth saying that USA thinks that each word is used slightly differently.

Q: Example?

A: Grammarist give a good example. They argue that when a road undergoing maintenance is closed to traffic, you have to take an “alternate route” – a substitution for the original. But when an under-construction road is still accessible to traffic, you might choose to take an alternative route to avoid delays.

Q: So with “alternate” you have no choice, and “alternative” gives you a choice.

A: That’s right. There are specific cases too – such as when someone is named as “an alternate juror”. This simply means a substitute for a jury member that may need to be excused. It’s not a choice, it’s a replacement.

Q: So I guess “alternative medicine” and “alternative lifestyles” work in the same way.

A: That’s right – choices rather than substitutions.

Q: Actually, I have an Aunt Louisa who does probably live an “alternate lifestyle”…

A: Oh really? Why?

Q: Because she only walks barefoot into Nimbin every other day.

A: Right. Well, it’s been fun but we have to get to a par— um, nothing.

Q: I knew it!

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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