Alternate vs. Alternative: How to Choose the Right Word

The terms can serve as synonyms, but there are important differences

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The words "alternate" vs. "alternative" are closely related and can serve as synonyms at times, but they can't be used interchangeably in all cases. The terms date to the 16th century, and both describe a choice apart from what is first offered. Understanding how the terms work grammatically is key to learning how to use each correctly depending on context.

How to Use Alternate

As a verb, "alternate" (the last syllable rhymes with late) means to happen by turns, to take turns, or to exchange places. As a noun, alternate (the last syllable rhymes with net) refers to a substitute—someone who is prepared to take the place of someone else. As an adjective, "alternate" (again, the last syllable rhymes with net) means occurring by turns or being one of two or more choices.

How to Use Alternative

As a noun, "alternative" refers to one of two or more possibilities or something that remains to be chosen. As an adjective, "alternative" means offering a choice (between or among two or more possibilities) or something different from the usual or conventional.

Examples

The most common way to use "alternate" involves the idea of taking turns or happening by turns as in:

  • Each year, the names of hurricanes "alternate" between male and female.
  • A nurse and a physical therapist visit my grandmother on "alternate" days.

The first sentence means that meteorologists give hurricanes male names one year, female names the next, and so on. The second sentence uses the term in a similar way, meaning that the nurse and therapist take turns visiting grandmother, with each coming every other day. "Alternate" can mean every other, as in:

Alternate sometimes refers one other, as these sentences show:

  • Each year since 1989, a turkey—and its "alternate"—have been pardoned by the president. An "alternate" is chosen just in case the first bird can't perform its duties.

"Alternate" can serve as a verb:

  • It's a good idea to "alternate" strength-building exercises with aerobic exercises.

In this use, "alternate" generally means every other; physical trainers and other experts often suggest that exercisers, both experienced and novice, do weightlifting one day and aerobics the next. The word "alternative," by contrast, often has just a slightly different meaning than "alternate"; the differences are nuanced:

  • The "alternative" was to attempt to land the plane on a highway.

In this case, "alternative" is used as a noun, meaning a second, or other, option, implying a choice between an unpleasant option and an even less-desirable option. "Alternative" can also work as an adjective:

  • My brother attends an "alternative" school for bright and independent students.

Here the notion of "alternative" is implied; the brother is attending a school that is an "alternative," or other option, than a regular school.

How to Remember the Difference

"Alternate" essentially means "substitute" (as in the runner up in a beauty pageant can serve as the substitute for the winner if needed). Both words end with a "t" sound. Use that to remember that an "alternate" is essentially a "substitute."

"Alternative" usually means that you have to select from two stark choices or even from among several unpleasant choices or options. "Alternative" is the longer word, so use that idea to remember that "alternative" may well mean one among many choices, where "alternate" usually only refers to two options.

An "alternative" mnemonic trick is to think of "alternative" as a "hive" of unpleasant choices:

  • When we stumbled upon the "beehive," we had no "alternative" but to run for our "lives"—either toward the river, the lake, or the swimming pool!

Pitfalls to Avoid

"Alternatives" are joined by and not or. For example, the "alternatives" are victory and (not or) surrender, notes Morton S. Freeman in "The Wordwatcher's Guide to Good Writing & Grammar."

This goes back to the notion that "alternative" or "alternatives" refers to stark choices, often between something good or bad or worse. "Alternative" can suggest a harmless choice, such as an "alternative" to driving would be taking the bus. But, just as often, the term implies a compulsion to choose, says Freeman:

  • The "alternatives" are liberty and death.

Despite the famous saying Patrick Henry uttered before the American Revolution—"Give me liberty or give me death"—he was actually referring to two stark "alternatives." The more correct, though far less dramatic, sentence would have been:

  • I choose between two "alternatives": liberty and death.

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