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Alternate vs. Alternative (Correct Usage, + Examples)

Alternate vs. alternative?


How should you use alternate and alternative? These words are not always interchangeable, though their meanings overlap as adjectives.



The difference between alternate vs. alternative

Alternative and alternate can both be adjectives or nouns.


  • Alternate means every other one in a series; e.g., if something happens on alternate days, nights, etc. it happens on one day, etc. but not on the next.


  • An alternative refers to one of two possibilities, or something “that you can choose to do or have out of two or more possibilities”.


As adjectives, both can be used to refer to something that can be used instead of something else, or as a substitute, but only “alternative” has the aspect of choice.



How to use alternate vs. alternative

Compare how both words appear in the sentence (from Strunk & White’s TEOS).


As the flooded road left them no alternative, they took the alternate route.


We could replace the word “alternative” in the above sentence with “other choice”.



“Alternate” / “alternative”, used in sentences

Examples: “alternate”, used in sentences
Stretch up 30 times with alternate arms as a warm-up exercise.

John has to work on alternate Sundays.

The ferry service will initially run on alternate days, increasing eventually to daily sailings.

Examples: “alternative”, used in sentences
The road was closed so we had to find an alternative route.

Can you offer an alternative explanation?

The car is too expensive so we’re trying to find a cheaper alternative.

There is a vegetarian alternative on the menu every day.



Alternate, synonyms

Alternate as a verb:


  • alter
  • intersperse
  • rotate
  • vary
  • waver


As an adjective:


  • double
  • equivalent
  • fill in
  • stand-in



Alternative, synonyms

As an adjective:



As a noun:


  • opportunity
  • option
  • substitute



Word origin (of alternate/alternative)

Late 14c., “to change (something), make different in some way,” from Old French alterer “to change, alter,” from Medieval Latin alterare “to change,” from Latin alter “the other (of the two),” from PIE root *al- (1) “beyond” + comparative suffix -ter (as in other).


1580s, “offering one or the other of two,” from Medieval Latin alternativus, from Latin alternatus, past participle of alternare “do one thing and then another, do by turns,” from alternus “one after the other, alternate, in turns, reciprocal,” from alter “the other” (see alter).



Read about other misused words

Commonly misused wordsUK English vs. US English
former vs. latterburned or burnt?
bear with vs. bare withcolor or colour?
breathe or breathfavorite vs. favourite
compliment vs. complementsmelled or smelt?
effect vs. affectgray or grey?
elude or alludefavor vs. favour
it’s or itsanalyze or analyse?



Sources

  1. Oxford Learner’s Dictionary on “alternate” and “alternative”. Accessed 23 March, 2024.
  2. Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of alternative.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/alternative. Accessed 27 March, 2024.


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