Alternate and Alternative

Two words that have been in the news recently are “alternative” and “alternate”.  Here at Wordsmith Essays, we want to make sure everyone’s using their grammar correctly, from students all the way up the ladder, so we thought we’d provide this helpful guide.

Both alternate and alternative are adjectives, modifying a noun, but while they’re both similar, they are not interchangeable.  They have two distinct meanings, though there is some overlap.

Alternate means occurring or succeeding by turns.  If you’re working on alternate days, that means you’re working one day and not working the next – the two states forming a repeating pattern.  If you’re facing alternate sunshine and rain, that means the day will be raining off and on – alternating with sunshine.

Alternative refers to a choice – something different than the standard.  An alternative plan means you’re offering a choice of a second plan to replace the first one.  It can also mean different from usual, such as an alternative lifestyle or alternative music.

There is a few areas of possible overlap, making the two words a bit tricky sometimes.  If you’re choosing to take a different road home than you normally would, that could be considered either an alternate route or an alternative route.  Generally speaking, style guides suggest using alternative if it’s a one-time choice – for example, if the road you take every day is suddenly blocked by an accident one day – and alternate if it’s a road you take every so often, semi-regularly.  That’s a choice that is best determined by how you’re using your sentence, however, and can really go either way.

So, to clarify once more – an alternate fact would be two facts that are in rotation with one another.  Whether it’s currently day or night, for example, would be alternate facts.  Both are facts at various times; they just alternate with each other as to which one is currently true.  Alternative facts would be something that’s used to replace facts.  They are an alternative to facts.   Good antonyms to “fact” include errors, inaccuracies, misconceptions and myths – these would all count as alternative facts.

Just a helpful bit of grammar for helping you along your way.

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