The Alternate Alternative?

I had an interesting — if rather bordering on lexicographical — discussion at work today over the use of the words “alternate” and “alternative”. Well, I thought it was interesting, okay?

Basically, our team have some chocolate advent calendars for December and someone had devised a rota to determine who is going to get what sweets from which calendar on what day. Yes, we are that organised.

However, my suspicions that the rota wasn’t entirely fair were confirmed when I put together a little excel formula (come on, I work in IT, what do you expect?) to check how many chocolates each person was getting. It turned out that ten of the people on our team were getting somewhere between 5 and 8 chocolates, and the eleventh was getting thirty-two.

I therefore proposed what I described as an alternate rota, where everyone would get either 8 or 9 chocolates, thinking I was doing everyone a good turn. Until I got the email.

Which simply read:


“Alternative what?” I asked, to get the answer that I should have used the word alternative instead of alternate, because alternate means to go from one thing and another, whereas an alternative is a different option. At least, that’s what he had been told when he had been picked up for using the world “alternate” similarly in the past.

Being the anally-retentive argumentative bastard that I am, this set me to pondering, and I thought about this for a while, and then decided that I didn’t agree.

I use the word “alternative” in that context, but I’ll also use the word “alternate”, depending on how I’m feeling. I tend to see “alternate” as perfectly valid in the context of “item y can be used as a replacement for item x” being “item y is an alternate for item x”. I also tend to see “alternate” as the slightly more flowery language, with alternative being the common or garden variety.

I will use alternate to mean “can be substituted for” and also to mean to go back and forth between two different things. Interestingly, I realised that I pronounce the words differently, depending on what I mean.

ˈȯl-tər-nət (ol-ter-nit): I use to mean the item which can be substituted for something else.

ˈȯl-tər-ˌnāt (ol-ter-neyt): I use to mean the back-and-forth between two things.

The first variety (the substitution) appears to be more common in US English: for the most part in British English — particularly by the language snobs, you know who you are — it appears to be frowned upon as a rather vulgar Americanisation where “alternative” should be used instead.

Intriguingly however, the OED came to my rescue, showing that those people who pooh-pooh it as a vulgar Americanisation are in fact oblivious to the fact that it has been a perfectly robust (if now somewhat dusty and less-used) usage in British English, going back almost four centuries:

As if..Bacchus, forsaking his heauen-borne deitie, should delude our eies with the alternate form of his infancie.Robert Green’s Arcadia (1616)

So, it may be rare, archaic and obscure, but it’s got a four-century pedigree in British English. So you can decry it as a vulgar Americanisation all you like — but we said it first. And you can either like it — or you can take the alternate option and lump it.

Unless of course anyone out there knows better?

2 Responses to “The Alternate Alternative?”

  1. Steve Pugh responds:

    Have you never had the lecture about how the W3C is wrong and rel=”alternate stylesheet” is poor grammar?

    (It is technically wrong regardless, as the rel attribute takes a space separated set of values and so rel=”alternate stylesheet” is the same as two links with the same href and rel=”alternate” and rel=”stylesheet” , which is obviously not what the CSS spec intends.)

  2. Karl responds:

    Interesting. But all that matters is that everyone gets an equal number of chocolates! :P

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