Sunday, June 29, 2008

Alternating Alternatives

I alternate between wanting to write about this topic and finding alternatives to it. It seems writers confuse this nigh-identical pair of words and today I'll finally clarify, for those of you who wonder how to differentiate between them.

If someone offers you an alternative, they are letting you choose a different idea or action. You may find an alternative solution or reply with an alternative approach. Whatever the situation, the word “alternative” means that you have a choice between at least two things.

Alternate, on the other hand, has more than one use. When you use it as an adjective (pronounced with a short a in the last syllable), you find an alternate or different route to your destination. In that case, you must do so because you cannot choose your original plan, because of road construction or a parade or some other obstruction. An alternate plan, or Plan B, is used not by choice but because the Plan A will no longer work. You can recycle your plastic bottles on alternate Wednesdays, taking them to the recycling center every other week.

You can also alternate between two things, using it as a verb with a long a in the final syllable. When translating, you alternate between, say, French and English so that both parties understand what the other has said. This use does not restrict you to two items, however. You can alternate among several pairs of jeans, in order not to wear out any one. This use implies a set rotation of choices, rather than simply choosing your favorite of the moment.

Both words can be transformed into adverbs, however, adding to writers' confusion. You can draw alternately from your personal experience and from the research into that of others when writing an article, meaning that you change your source from one to the other and back again. You can drive to work or alternatively take the bus. Did that sail over your head or, alternatively, do you catch what I'm throwing?