Grandma's Tales

February 27, 2007

Grammar – 28 The hot difference between “alternate” and “alternative”

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:18 pm

This has been on my blog fodder list for a while, and here’s the reason why.
Chidanand Rajghatta, a favourite newswriter, recently did a story on which was the hotter chilly – Assam’s little known Naga Jalokia or California’s reigning champ Red Savina. According to his sources, the Jalokia chilly has now climbed the hottest seat by a big margin – 1,001,304 SHUs to Red Savina’s 577, 000 SHUs.
[SHU stands for Scoville Heat Unit, a measure invented by American chemist William Scoville to quantify spice heat.]
During the course of  this tear-jerking debate, Rajghatta writes: “Just how hot are Jalokias is evident from the prefixes it has earned – Bhut means ghost, for that’s what it reduces anyone who bites into it; Naga, the alternate prefix,is said to reflect the tribe’s fiery temperament.”
Now how do we understand the word “alternate”? Here are the options: alternate:
Occurring by turns; succeeding each other, take turns (verb): “He and his sister alternate washing the dishes.”
[2] One and then the other; every other, successive (adjective): “Each of the two pharmacies in this town is open on alternate Sundays.” “The zebra has alternate black and white stripes.”
[3] Substitute, backup (adjective): “If the main road is closed, take an alternate route.”
[4] Stand-by, backup, understudy (noun): “He attended the seminar not as a delegate but as an alternate.”
The writer obviously uses the word “alternate” in the third sense – Naga is the alternate (substitute) name for the now-famous chilly.  This usage is probably widespread in the US, but in the UK and in India this would be using the word in its narrow sense. In India, the preferred word would have been “alternative”. Let’s look at the word “alternative”.
alternative: A choice between two or among more than two things; something remaining to be chosen; choice, option, recourse: “Is there an alternative to going?”
If he wants to reach Delhi by tonight (to stake his claim for chiefministership?), he has no alternative but to go by plane.” 
So “alternate ” means “following by turns, one after the other” or “a substitute or second” or “every other in a series.”It is related to the adjective and means “to go back and forth” or “to change from one state to another and back again repeatedly.”
Example: The captain alternates the two fast bowlers in the slog overs.
Alternative refers to or implies a choice between two things. As a noun, it refers to the other choice. Example: If the flight is grounded, our alternative is to travel by train. (The other choice).
This sentence should throw more light on the word. A utility “plans to freeze its electric rates for five years, and by 2003 will allow all its customers to buy power from alternate sources.” It is clear the writer meant “alternative,” meaning, providing a choice among options. “Alternate” means by turns, or every other, as in “alternate Sundays.”
Verdict: When you talk of choice, use “alternative”. Huge grants have not stopped the farmer suicides in Vidarbha. We need to think of alternative methods of solving this tragedy.
If it is going back and forth, then there is no alternative but to use “alternate”. When he is sozzled, his mood alternates between bluster and self-pity.
Here is the final word: alternate or alternative?
The two words really do have quite separate and distinct meanings: alternate implies the taking of turns, and alternative implies a choice. Start with the verb “to alternate” and carry its meaning over to the adjective alternate. You have a useful modifier that says, in a word, “First this one, then that one,” or, “Now me, then you, then me again, and so on.” Don’t corrupt alternate with any other confusing meaning.
Then take alternative, which means the choosing of one out of two courses; as a noun, it means such a choice (or “option”), and as an adjective, it is a synonym for “substitute”. Limit it to that. Let’s not blow alternately hot and cold on this: the alternative to holding the line
(understanding the words to mean the above) is fuzziness.
—William Safire, On Language



  1. Much as I agree with you, the use of the word ‘alternate’ in common American usage, Safire notwithstanding, is often to imply ‘alternative’. Merriam-Webster link:

    Comment by Shefaly — April 26, 2007 @ 11:24 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Shefaly, I’m pretty sure Safire wrote this piece to warn of the misuse! Americans use “laid” for “lay” (I laid under the tree in the park), “aluminum” for “aluminium” … We needn’t follow their dictates, need we? If “alternate” implies “alternative”, how do you express the thought “two things coming in turns”, as in “The office is closed on alternate Sundays”?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — April 27, 2007 @ 9:32 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks, Mrs. P.

    I think they say ‘laid’ instead of ‘lay’ because they do not understand that the former is the past tense of a transitive verb ‘lay’ and the latter the past tense of an intransitive verb ‘lie’. That is clearly a mistake arising from not knowing the right word. I hear enough people in Britain make the same mistake.

    ‘Aluminum’ is a mistake of pronunciation, because they spell it how the rest of us do. In the same vein, nuclear to them is ‘nu-killer’. I see this as a different kind of mistake.

    The usage ‘alternate’ to mean ‘alternative’, while not wrong – as indicated in the Merriam Webster, which is one of the key American English dictionaries – is clear from the context to the reader. This, to me, is a matter of preferred popular usage, sanctioned by dictionary. They do cause some confusion in Britain where the two usages are separate.

    I was just expressing a curiosity. I live in Britain and would not get far with American English. I also write two blogs, where the language is getting more and more British colloquial. Thanks.

    Comment by Shefaly — April 28, 2007 @ 1:59 am | Reply

  4. Thank you Shefaly, for those very insightful comments. I’m sure a lot of our readers will benefit from this. And please call me Geeta.
    Would you like to throw some light on “British colloquial”?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — April 28, 2007 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

  5. Thanks, Mrs P. My cultural grounding (or ‘baggage’ if you prefer) make it hard to call you by your first name, so I hope that is ok by you.

    By ‘British colloquial’ I mean terms or words that may or may not mean much to people outside Britain, because the terms draw upon modern-day usage rather than the usage found in Wodehouse or Shakespeare. These terms emerge from media, social trends which do not always get exported as TV programme formats etc. In a small way, it is similar to how Hinglish is comprehensible to us cross-over Indians, but not to many others. e.g. “Brad and butter? A Jolie good idea!” travels better than “Coach na kaho” on the Indian cricket coach leaving the job.

    For instance, I recently used the expression ‘all-round creative bag designer lady’ to describe Anya Hindmarch. This is a twist on a common British expression ‘bag lady’, which is not complementary and indicates ‘a homeless woman who carries all her possessions with her in shopping bags’. Increasingly, however, the term is being used to refer to businesses selling bags for women, and to describe women, who love and collect handbags. I think that is what the term ‘bag lady’ means to most people, except in Britain where it means ‘a homeless woman’. My description of Anya Hindmarch, while a twist of a kind on a common British term, was meant to acknowledge her status as a creative British designer.

    Comment by Shefaly — April 29, 2007 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

  6. Hi Shefaly, it is a pleasure reading your comments. You have now opened up a whole new topic – cultural and language differences in the way we coin and understand colloquialisms! Culture is dynamic and so is the language which is its expression! I think people like you are fortunate to be able to swim very comfortably in several cultural waters. Would you please give me your blog ID so I can include it in my post about you?
    BTW, it is “complimentary”, and not “complementary”, right?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — April 29, 2007 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

  7. Thanks, Mrs P for your kind words. One thing I begrudge WordPress is that, unlike Blogger, it offers no ‘preview’ function, which enables spelling bloopers to slip in and remain unnoticed especially if the post was written hurriedly. Thanks for correcting the spelling.

    Thanks for your offer to link my blog. My blog on general issues of technology, business, politics and society is on:

    I also write another blog, which has a wide readership in India (and in fact, all continents except Antarctica) and which covers my PhD topic of obesity. That can be found on


    Comment by Shefaly — April 30, 2007 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

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