Alternate vs. alternative

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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Topic » Wed Jan 02, 2002 3:39 pm

I was surprised to read in today’s World Wide Words newsletter by Michael Quinion that he and many of his readers think that the use of ‘alternate’ in the phrase ‘alternate name' is incorrect. He wrote:

“ALTERNATE VERSUS ALTERNATIVE: Several careful users of the language among subscribers pointed aghast at my inclusion of "alternate" in Weird Words last week: "A modified version of his game immediately became hugely popular under his alternate name". I can only plead temporary insanity on grounds of swollen-headedness. Things that alternate occur in turn repeatedly; this was not, of course, what I meant, rather that it was a name available as another possibility, an alternative.”
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I don’t get it. I’ve been using 'alternate' in the supposedly unacceptable way all of my life, which, of course, doesn’t necessarily make it right, and have heard the phrase ‘alternate plans’ more times than I can count. And according to Random House Unabridged, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, and American Heritage Dictionary, which offer it as one of their definitions, it appears to be a perfectly acceptable usage. Random House says, “constituting an alternative: ‘The alternate route is more scenic.’” American Heritage says, “Serving or used in place of another; substitute: an alternate plan.” Merriam-Webster’s says, “alternative, substitute <this highway is an alternate route> <copper may be used as an alternate material> <make an alternate selection>.” However, I did notice that The Oxford English Dictionary did not offer this alternative use of ‘alternate.’ Is this perhaps a British versus American English thing? But wouldn’t Michael Quinion, a renowned lexicographer, have known and mentioned this if it were. I have e-mailed him on this issue and hope he replies, but in the mean time any of your thoughts on this subject will be appreciated.
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Ken G – July 10, 2004
Submitted by Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 3:53 pm

Ken,

I had this one drummed into me at school and spend a fair amount of time correcting it from non-native speakers. I'm with Quinion, as are Fowler and Partridge.

Partridge (Usage and Abusage) says:

"The adverb of 'alternative' is 'alternatively', 'in a way that offers a choice between two'; in this sense, 'alternately' is obsolete. The adjective 'alternate' = 'arranged by terms', 1 and 2 being alternate numbers in 1,2,1,2,1,2,1,2 ..."

Fowler maintains almost the opposite in terms of the history of the meanings, but with the same end result:

"'Alternative(ly)' had, besides their present senses, those now belonging to 'alternate(ly)'; now that the differentiation is complete, confusion between the two between the two ... is still less excusable...".

Michael Swan, in "Practical English Usage" is generally very good at identifying distinctions between US and UK usage, but he also says clearly:

"'Alternately' means 'first one and then the other', 'in turns'.
...
'Alternatively' is similar to 'instead', 'on the other hand'."

Swan does not aspire to be anything other than an advanced learner's guide to usage, but I have always found it to be a mine of reliable, practical guidelines.

The response of an American colleague, however, suggests that US usage is indeed different. "An alternate candidate" grates on my British sensibilities, but not on those of my American colleague, although she did immediately provide the distinction above when I asked her whether there was any difference between the two.

Phil, 12 July 2004
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 4:08 pm

Ken,
There's a nice dicussion with plenty of references under
http://lists.debian.org/debian-devel/19 ... 00037.html
Phil, 12 July 2004
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 4:22 pm

Yes, I'm always jarred when I hear non-indigenes alter native usages.
Reply from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 4:37 pm

Phil, Your above website reference seems to agree with my American dictionaries when it gives as one of the adjective definitions of ALTERNATE: “A substitute or second; especially, one substituting for another in the performance of a duty or the filling of a position; a second choice,” which implies that the repeated switching isn’t a requirement, at least for its use as an adjective.

I just received an e-mail from Michael Quinion that confirms that this adjective usage is O.K. in the U.S. but not in the motherland:

“Yes, the usage is good American English, but not good British English!”
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I guess in keeping with our pioneering spirit (or is it disregard for Standard English?) Americans have come up with an alternate usage of ‘alternate’! (<:)
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Ken – July 12, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 4:51 pm

Ken,
The definition you cite is for a nominal usage, not an adjectival usage. The use of "alternate" in the sense of a substitute appears to have been been around in the US for longer than the adjectival use as a synonym for "alternative". The suggestion of the thread I referenced is that the adjectival usage was derived from this specific nominal usage and is unnecessarily confusing under certain circumstances.

Either way, whether purists regard it as right or wrong, it is clearly widely used by educated American writers in this sense, and therefore right (at least on your side of the rapidly blurring linguistic demarcation line).

Phil, 12 July 2004
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 5:05 pm

Phil, You’re right I didn’t see the ‘n.’ Interesting, though, how you never give something a thought and then find out it is controversial. I was coach of the Colorado state math team for several years and we had 15 regular team members and 5 ‘alternates’ and if things didn’t go as we expected, we always needed an ‘alternate plan,’ and if for some reason we couldn’t meet at a planned location we needed an ‘alterante site.' A common sign over here in these days of perpetual road work is ‘alternate route’ and in the July 4 issue of the New York Times: “The Republicans are coming to New York [[Republican convention]] . . . many rail commuters might take [an] ‘alternate route,’ . . .”

The wesite article you suggested did give a very good explanation of the issues, though. Thanks.

Ken – July 12, 2004



Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 5:20 pm

In this part of the world (sothern U.S.) we pronounce "alternate" differently depending on how it's used. I don't know if this is the case in other areas or not.

There is "alternate" with a long "a" in the "nate" part, which is used as a verb. You alternate (with a long "a") between two plans if you switch between them.

When used as an adjective, "alternate" is pronounced "al-ter-net".

So, if you have alternate (prounced like al-ter-net) plans, then you could alternate (prounced with long "a") between them.

Reply from Je. Roberts (Jackson, MS - U.S.A.)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 5:34 pm

Offhand, I can't think of any regional accent or dialect that doesn't make the same distinction (except perhaps that bastion of the American pioneering spirit, Colorado...). There are many words which are pronounced differently according to their part of speech. They are usually referred to as heteronyms, sometimes more generally as homographs.
Just a few for you: attribute, combine, conduct, contest, house, multiply, present, separate. In all these cases, the different pronounciations share a common root.
There are other homographs where the two meanings which are pronounced differently do not share a common root: tear, sow, sewer...
There are plenty of lists on the web.
Reply from Phil White (Munich - Germany)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 5:49 pm

For more on ‘homographs,’ etc. see posting # 3984 “Two Words, Spelled The Same, Pronounced Differently Having Different Meanings?”

Ken G – July 13, 2004

Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 6:03 pm

Are homographs related to bart charts?
Reply from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 6:17 pm

I imadgine they must be.

Er - lisa think so.
Reply from Erik Kowal ( - England)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 6:32 pm

"Alternate" means happening one after the other; "alternative" means that can be used instead of something else. In the context, 'alternative name' is the correct form.
Reply from Umesh Sabharwal (Mumbai - India)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 6:46 pm

I'm with you Umesh. At my beach home I have a water pump with two motors, an alternating current motor and a direct current motor. If the AC power fails I use the DC pump as an alternative. I do not use the pump motors alternately, ie, one today and the other tomorrow.
Reply from Ron Harker (Bay Of Idslands - New Zealand)
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Alternate vs. alternative

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jan 02, 2002 7:01 pm

An alternate juror takes the place of one who can no longer serve.
A pagent's first runner up is the alternate winner.
An alternate ending may be presented on the movie's DVD.

Would it be proper to replace alternate with alternative in these examples?
Reply from Jimmie Whipple (New Braunfels - U.S.A.)
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