alternate vs alternative is no longer a moot point

Es­ti­mated reading time is 4 min­utes.

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.


MarkAnderson cartoon dictionaries 1000

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!


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