Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Alternate and Alternative

Alternate vs Alternative

‘Alternate’ and ‘alternative’ are very often confused. That’s not because they have similar meanings, but because they are spelled almost exactly the same. They come from the same Latin word, ‘alternus’, which means to take turns. However, they have evolved into two different words. ‘Alternate’ was imported directly from Latin, but ‘alternative’ took a detour through French, where it got the meaning of ‘different’. The words are now completely different, but ‘alternate’ keeps being mistake for ‘alternative’ because they look alike.

An alternative is a choice between two or more possibilities, or a choice other than the most common. It can be either a noun or an adjective, but not a verb.

The noun refers to the alternative possibilities. There will usually be one main choice, and the rest will be the alternatives.

We could try to ram the castle doors, but I have an alternative: we scale the walls instead.

However, it can also mean the final option left after all other options are gone.

Our last alternative is to get the dragons to burn down the castle.

As an adjective, it means that the noun it refers to is another option in addition to the first.

A landfill blocked the main route to the castle. We’re going to have to take the alternative route through the forest.

You can also see this as an adjective in phrases such as ‘alternative medicine’ or ‘alternative lifestyle’. In those cases, it means an option that is outside the normal practice.

‘Alternate’, on the other hand, originally meant something along the lines of ‘every other’. For example, in the post office, there is one line and two booths open to help the people in line. The first person in line will go to the booth on the left, while the next one will go to the booth on the right and the third person will go to the left when the first person is done. That means that the line of people will alternate between the two booths.

Or, for a simpler example, a cafeteria will serve hamburgers on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but they serve pizza on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Because every other day is a different choice, the cafeteria alternates between the meals they serve.

‘Alternate’ can be a noun, an adjective, or a verb. The noun refers to something that alternates with something else.

We’ve set up a system where people can work for one hour and then take a break for another hour, while another person works in their place. The alternates really seem to like this system so far.

The adjective means something that regularly changes by turns. Emotions could be one example.

I felt first amused and then angered by the situation, though my alternate emotions returned to humor when I noted the underlying implications.

Finally, the verb means the act of alternating.

We alternated between watching the baby and taking short naps.

In common usage, ‘alternate’ is being used instead of ‘alternative’. In many areas, especially the United States, they are now considered synonyms. For example, in science fiction, you might see the phrase ‘alternate universe’. This refers to a different universe, not a universe that changes to another every other day. In fact, ‘alternate’ is being used more often than the word ‘alternative’ including in street signs and official documents.

Given how often ‘alternate’ is used to mean ‘alternative’, it’s not likely that it’s going to stop being used that way. However, this might not be a bad thing. After all, the word ‘alternative’ evolved from the same root word. It’s entirely possible that in the future, ‘alternate’ will be the accepted alternative form of the word. That’s just how language changes over the years.


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