As with much of the English language the correct use of this pair of words has slipped into misuse, and in some very unfortunate circumstances, accepted as the norm, or worse correct.
It seem the pair create somewhat of a conundrum given the discussion of usage around one or the other … which brings me to the precise point. Alternative means one or the other, that is: Butter is not available for this recipe so let’s use margarine, as the alternative.
However, Mary who is on a cholesterol controlled diet chose to alternate butter with the alternative olive oil as the fat source in her daily consumption.
Easily said and done, right? Well not so, the discussion suggests.
A source says: “Alternate can be a verb, noun, or adjective, while alternative can be a noun or adjective. In both American and British English, the adjective alternate means ‘every other’ (there will be a dance on alternate Saturdays) and the adjective alternative means ‘available as another choice’ (an alternative route: alternative medicine; alternative energy sources).
In American usage, however, alternate can also be used to mean ‘available as another choice’ an alternate plan called for construction to begin immediately rather than waiting for spring. Likewise, a book club may offer an ‘alternate selection’ as an alternative to the main selection.
Some traditionalists maintain, from an etymological standpoint, that you can have only two alternatives (from the Latin alter ‘other (of two); the other’) and that uses of more than two alternatives are erroneous. Such uses are, however, normal in modern standard English.”
Here they are nouns:
The producers … are planning to tap the cast member Matthew James Thomas to serve as an alternate for the leading man. [NY Times]
There is no medium-term alternative to the dollar for the international monetary system. [Reuters]
Portman portrays Nina Sayres, prima ballerina, with a deer-in-the-headlights look, while Mila Kunis is her alternate, seductive and potentially lethal Lily. [Waffle Reviews]
The Motorola Droid 2 Global is a solid Android smartphone for globe-trotting executives looking for a BlackBerry alternative. [CNET]
And here they are adjectives:
For those of you who use this route, signs will be up to direct you to alternate routes. [News 12]
No alternative energy source currently in development is near ready for prime time. [Slate]
‘alternate’ routes should be ‘alternative’ since the plural noun implies more than one choice. The use of ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’ is different in the UK and much of the English speaking world, from the US.
‘Alternate’ is used when things move from one option to another in sequence, from the verb ‘to alternate’. When there is a choice,’ alternative’ is preferred. ‘Alternate’ as a noun (the stand-in actor example) would be ‘alternative’ since it would be an adjectival noun – implying the word ‘choice’- and could be someone else entirely.
The American use of these words is rapidly entering the UK and, since grammatical ‘correctness’ is only determined by use, we will no doubt convert to the American forms in time, but to speak or write of an ‘alternate’ choice still sounds wrong to UK ears! Much simpler to have ‘alternate’ only when changing in sequence and ‘alternative’ for all choices, whether two or more.
We came across this view of “alternate” (that its use in the sense “serving in place of another” is questionable to some) in our original research for this post and considered mentioning it. But we always try to discuss words as they are now used rather than as they are traditionally used, and we find the adjectival use of “alternate” as a synonym of “substitute” or “replacement” to be very common throughout the English-speaking world, at least in news writing.
Purists, please show your support … others, your feedback is welcome.