ALTERNATE YOUR LEFT LEG FORWARD after your right. It’s called walking. And that’s what alternate means: every other. If you have been buying compact discs over the past few decades—especially reissues of older albums—you have probably been over-exposed to the term ‘alternate take.’ If you read science fiction or fantasy, you have probably likewise noticed an increase in the number of ‘alternate reality’ stories.
Here’s the problem: the word alternate is defined by Merriam-Webster Online as “occurring or succeeding by turns”—as in “a day of alternate sunshine and rain.” Its secondary definition is “arranged first on one side and then on the other at different levels or points along an axial line.”
The most functional definition is “every other; every second [one].” This is the traditional—the correct—meaning of the word.
So, the word that CD liner-note writers want—if accuracy is their goal—is alternative, whose primary meaning is “offering or expressing a choice.”
Alas, like other commonly misused words (moot comes to mind; look it up—it doesn’t mean what at least half of you think it does), alternate = alternative has been sooooo misused for sooooo long that now the dictionaries are including the incorrect meaning of the word with the correct meaning!
So it is that we find that the fourth numbered definition in MWO is “constituting an alternative” (as in he “took the alternate route home”).
Most modern American dictionaries are descriptive; often looking up a word like scan or moot will give you two definitions: the older, correct definition, and the newer definition brought about by ignorance. Which definition do you choose?
Two kinds of dictionaries
According to an article titled “The Two Kinds of Dictionaries” on the English Plus+ website, “There are two different editorial policies used by the editors of dictionaries. The terms we use to describe them are descriptive and prescriptive.… The truth of the matter is that today virtually all English language dictionaries are descriptive. The editors will usually say that they are simply recording the language and how its words are used and spelled.
True, there may be some guidance. For example, most Merriam-Webster dictionaries will note if certain words are deemed nonstandard or offensive by most users; however, the words are still included. Of modern dictionaries, only the Funk & Wagnall’s contains a certain amount of prescriptive advice.
This was not the case with the first dictionaries in England and America. They were prescriptive. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) had social commentary and jokes.… Johnson also came to the conclusion that the English language could not be proscribed—it could not be limited to only a certain number of words. This, though, had nothing to do with correctness or propriety.
Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) was also prescriptive.… He was motivated by a utilitarian view of spelling as well as a concern for precise communication. His definitions tend to be far more precise than those in many dictionaries today.… About twenty years ago, a publisher saw a need and reprinted the 1828 Webster dictionary. It has been a steady seller since then in spite of its lack of modern terms because many people are still looking for dictionaries to provide guidance.”
The compact disc ELVIS 56 is a compilation of 22 tracks recorded in 1956. It includes two “alternate takes,” neither of which alternate with anything. They are alternative takes to those takes chosen as masters by Elvis and Steve Sholes.
Functional illiteracy trumps literacy
And while I have NO problem the ‘evolution of language,’ I tend to think of such evolution as the expansion or contraction of the meaning of words in a, um, sensible, or reasonable, or understandable manner or order. For instance, in 1956 the term rock and roll (or rock ‘n’ roll or rock & roll) meant something that was fairly easy to digest and understand.
While the basic meaning of that term has remained intact (except among far too many increasingly ignorant—and damn near functionally illiterate—young people, whose sense of history is often measured in weeks), it has expanded to include a staggering array of musical styles and cultural influences and influences that never would have occurred to Elvis Chuck Fats Richard Buddy (well, maybe to Buddy) etc. I could go on but I will assume (NEVER assume anything!) that you get the gist by now …
In the case of alternate = alternative (and moot and scan and others), what we have is a situation where, if a word is used incorrectly enough times by enough people, ignorance gets to triumph over the knowledge, awareness, education.
That is, functional illiteracy trumps functional literacy!
Needless to say, I prefer the prescriptive dictionaries over the descriptive myself—if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written this piece, hennah? (And I will explain the origins of that last word—familiar only to denizens of Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania—in a future post.)
So, alternate vs alternative is no longer a moot point, yes?
Finally, I want to dedicate this piece to my sister, Mary Alice, and every hung-up teacher in the whole wide universe for keeping on keeping on.
Cartoon by Mark Anderson sums up the dilemma many of us dictionary types face when confronted by those who just know they know what they know without ever having checked to see if they know a damn thing!