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Alternative 3

July 13, 2017

I was doing a listening comprehension with my Chinese students yesterday, and the man on the recording said: “There are three alternatives for each question. Listen carefully and circle the correct one…”

Three alternatives? Well, that’s not right, is it? Strictly speaking, there can only be two alternatives. One or the other. Either/or. This or that. To speak of more than two possibilities we should use options. That, at any rate, is the traditional rule. I remember many years ago (circa 1976) a spoof TV documentary about life on Mars: it was called Alternative 3, and the deliberate mistake was intended to be a clue that we shouldn’t take it seriously.

The rule has, however, more or less fallen into desuetude; few people are aware of it and still fewer are bothered. I am not that bothered myself. I personally wouldn’t say “three alternatives” simply because it’s hard to break a rule once you know it; but I don’t mind hearing it from other people and have no impulse to correct them. But. This particular usage was on an IELTS recording (‘International English Language Testing’) – the international standard for foreign students learning English – so you would expect they’d get it right, wouldn’t you?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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2 Comments
  1. Spiritman permalink

    I agree it should be ‘options’. It’s similar to “I’ll reiterate that again” in terms of how people struggle to keep count of elements or occurrences beyond 1!

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    I used to work with a New Zealander who when presented with three options would say, ” the old choice. Rip, shit or bust”, without ever delineating which was which.
    Desuetude is an excellent word. Like moribund it deserves more usage.

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