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alternative/alternate

September 14, 2013

Last night I was watching a mildly diverting documentary on BBC4 about easy listening music (well, you’d expect it to be mildly diverting, wouldn’t you, rather than wildly exciting) and ubiquitous talking-head Paul Morley popped up to say that easy listening offered a kind of ‘alternate history of pop’. Instead of alternative, which is what he really meant.

I’ve noticed this confusion for some time now, especially in American English, though Morley is of course from Manchester. Alternative, used adjectivally, means different, or something like contrastingly choosable. (While I am on this subject I should mention that technically there can only be two alternatives, because alternative implies either/or. If there are three or more possibilities, then they are options, not alternatives. But I’m not too much of a stickler for this rule.)

The word alternate, on the other hand, means every other, as in The group meets on alternate Wednesdays. It is not simply an alternative to alternative.

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One Comment
  1. Keiron Clark permalink

    Sadly, the word “alternative” seems to be disappearing in North America (I am in Canada). For many years, it has been displaced increasingly by “alternate”. It is good to see someone writing on this topic.

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