‘Alternate’ vs. ‘Alternative’: The Difference

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

The adjective alternative is used when there are several different options, one of which is more important than the othersthe other options are then said to be “alternative”. For example, when you say

I haven’t found any alternative solution.

it means there is one “basic” solution, and you didn’t find any other viable solution.

It may also be used in the sense of “different from the usual way in which something is done”, which we can see in phrases like

Alternative rock, alternative energy, alternative lifestyle, …

The adjective alternate, in its traditional sense, is used (in both American and British English) when two things or events follow each other regularly in an alternating pattern, i.e. A–B–A–B–(and so on). For example, we can say

The cake is made of alternate layers of fruit and cream.

which means that the cake consists of layers of the form Fruit – Cream – Fruit – Cream – Fruit – etc. When talking about days, weeks, or months, “alternate” means “every other”. For instance,

The meetings were scheduled on alternate Mondays.

means that the meetings were scheduled on every other Monday, i.e. once every two weeks.

‘Alternate’ in American English

In American English, the word alternate is commonly used in the sense of “alternative” when the primary option is no longer available, as in

The road is closed. We will have to find an alternate route.

Some speakers of American English even consider the use of “alternative” to be incorrect in this case, claiming “alternative” implies that the original option is still available.

On the other hand, most Britons consider the usage of “alternate” in this sense to be a mistake and would say “alternative route” instead.

‘Alternative’ as a noun

Both “alternate” and “alternative” are also nouns. In its original sense, an alternate is something that alternates, i.e. that changes regularly between two forms, but it is almost never used in this sense in modern English. In American English, “alternate” is also sometimes used in the sense of a substitute, a replacement for someone or something, but such usage is also quite rare.

Alternative, on the other hand, is as common as the corresponding adjective. It is used in two related meanings. As expected, an alternative usually means “an alternative option”. When you say

The product contains meat, but there is also a vegetarian alternative.

it means that the product that is the primary subject of conversation contains meat, but there is also an alternative product that is vegetarian.

However, the word “alternative” is often used interchangeably with “option”, as in

We have two alternatives: Either we buy a PC or a Mac.

This may lead to confusion. “There are three alternatives”, without context, may be used to talk about a situation with one primary option and three alternative options (that is, four options overall) or a situation with just three different options. You should therefore be careful in your writing and always provide enough context to make the intended meaning clear.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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