Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Alternate or alternative?

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Jim on the Bus, being Handsome
Image by Jim Barker via Flickr

Alternate and alternative

‘Alternative’ refers to another possibility or choice. For example:

Of the two alternative plans, I prefer hers.

There are two alternatives to consider.

The alternative course of action is to close the factory down.

‘Alternative’ can also be used in sentences such as:

Jim took the alternative of catching the bus home.

Alternate

‘Alternate’, on the other hand, means ‘happening in turns’, for example:

The weather alternates between rain and sunshine.

He alternates between anger and sadness.

It also means happening every second time, for example:

The nurse visits on alternate days.

Alternate pages of the book are blank.

The confusion is often at its greatest when writers have to choose between ‘alternately’ and ‘alternatively’. The following is incorrect:

We may eat in town, or alternately at Jim’s place.

That should, of course, be ‘alternatively’ as the sentence is referring to a choice between two venues.

Commonly confused and just plain wrong

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Written by Wordwatch

09/12/2009 at 6:18 pm

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