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I had a question on the usage of alternate vs. alternative from an overseas friend which I had a difficult time answering. There are cases where the words are used as adjectives where one should be used over the other, but are there any general rules for this? In particular, in a sentence such as "We may need to seek an alternate/alternative supplier if your company cannot support our needs", does it matter which is used?
Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has these (and more) comments:
alternate, alternative, adjectives The adjectives alternate and alternative, say many commentators, are often confused; they advise keeping them separate. The senses recommended are "occuring or succeeding by turns" for alternate, and "offering or expressing a choice" for alternative.
The evidence in the Merriam-Webster files shows this curious tendency: alternative is becoming more and more a noun, and the adjective appears to be in the process of being replaced (at least in American English) by alternate. Except in botany, the adjective alternate in its sense "by turns" is giving way to the verb alternate and its participle alternating.
-His Collected Stories, a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection
-...was named alternate United States delegate to the fifth General Assembly of the United Nations
-...an alternate route, built by the Federal Government in 1932
-Early copper shortages stimulated manufacturers to investigate aluminum as an alternate material
-The book also contains the complete alternate lyrics
-But they found an alternate, and very gree-trade, way of expressing themselves -- the smuggling of opium
-...certain forms have considerable prestige as compared with alternate forms for practically the same meaning
It appears that alternative as an adjective is disappearing.
'Alternative' seems stable in BrE.
In the world of jazz the use of unfinished or unused outtakes when reissuing LPs as CDs has resulted in the use of the term "alternate takes". Many British writers avoid this usage preferring the more correct "alternative". It appears the battle is lost on the US side of the Atlantic and as far back as the early 1950s, in the movie "Twelve Angry Men", the judge says, "The alternate jurors may leave the courtroom...". If the word "alternate" is replacing "alternative" what would happen when one wishes to say, "I had no alternative but to leave"? Surely "I had no alternate but to leave" would be ludicrous.
Alternate is a verb - if something alternates between black and white it goes black, then white, then black, then white et cetera.
Alternative is a different word, a noun, with a completely different meaning.
The confusion of the two words in American English is an unfortunate but very common error which erodes the useful difference between the two words.
There are no rules on using alternate instead of alternative, other than it's poor English and should be avoided.
Anonymous If the word "alternate" is replacing "alternative" what would happen when one wishes to say, "I had no alternative but to leave"? Surely "I had no alternate but to leave" would be ludicrous.The question here is whether to use alternate or alternative as an adjective. In your example, alternative is a noun. The Webster quote above says that alternative is increasingly being used as a noun in American English, so I don't think your fear is founded.
I completely agree with this analysis, but it still leaves the problem that if we allow the two adjectives to become synonymous then we lose the useful difference in meaning between the two words.
I know better. So, I will continue to use the correct word, and not an alternative word! Keep it straight guys!