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Commonly Confused Words: ‘Alternate’ and ‘Alternative’

Posted by Capstone Editing on 27 July 2017

Commonly Confused Words: ‘Alternate’ and ‘Alternative’

Welcome back to our series on ‘Commonly Confused Words’! This series aims to explain the difference between a few of the most misused or misunderstood words in academic writing.

We’ve already covered the difference between ‘practice’ and ‘practise’, and ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’. We’d love to hear from you: what commonly confused words would you like us to write about next? Add your suggestions to the comments below.

As always, we cite the Macquarie Dictionary for our definitions because it’s recognised as the authority on Australian English spelling. Additionally, we will share some examples and tricks to ensure you remember how to use ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’ correctly.

‘Alternate’

The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘alternate’ as a verb. In past tense, it is ‘alternated’; in the present continuous tense, it is ‘alternating’. It means ‘to follow one another in time or place reciprocally’ or ‘to change about by turns between points, states, [or] actions’. It is suggestive of an ‘interchange’: especially taking turns back and forth.

For example, you might alternate between being optimistic and realistic, meaning you are going back and forth between those two perspectives. ‘Alternate’ is the verb; it’s the action of going between these two states.

You might ‘alternate with’ your partner to share the driving on a long road trip. When you ‘alternate’, you switch back and forth between drivers. The Macquarie Dictionary uses the example of day and night alternating indefinitely.

‘Alternate’ could also be used as an adjective to describe something that is arranged in an interchanging manner. For example, ‘After spending a week in her presence, it became clear that she wore alternate outfits’ or ‘The wallpaper was alternate stripes of red and gold’.

‘Alternate’ is sometimes used as a noun: a synonym for ‘substitute’. In this usage, ‘alternate’ is defined as ‘a person authorised to take the place of and act for another in their absence’. For example, ‘The directors are hoping to cast John Smith as an alternate for the leading role’. ‘Alternate’ here means that John Smith will be the substitute or understudy for a role.

To sum up, ‘alternate’ is often used as a verb. It means taking turns or switching back and forth.

‘Alternative’

Conversely, ‘alternative’ is a noun (or sometimes an adjective) that means ‘the possibility of one out of two things’. It’s a synonym for ‘option’. You might have heard the sentence, ‘There’s no alternative’; it means there’s no other option.

‘Alternative’ means there are two (although some writers now use ‘alternatives’ for more than two) choices. ‘Alternate’ is the act of going between these choices, states or actions.

To return to our earlier road trip example, you could alternate (i.e., a verb, meaning to switch between) between drivers; the alternative (i.e., a noun, meaning the other option) to sharing the driving would be for one person to do it all.

You might have heard the term ‘alternative medicine’. This is used to refer to a treatment option other than mainstream medicine (often without scientific backing). Similarly, an ‘alternative hairstyle’ might suggest a person has chosen to challenge the expected norms of styling by opting for something outlandish. In both instances, ‘alternative’ has been used as an adjective (a describing word). The meaning is the same as its usage as a noun.

We hope this article has been informative and empowers you to use these terms with confidence. Remember, ‘alternate’ is typically an action of switching between states, while ‘alternative’ is another word for ‘choice’ or ‘option’. If you’d like to learn about more commonly confused words, sign up below to our blog so you can be notified when a new article is posted.

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Commonly Confused Words: ‘Alternate’ and ‘Alternative’