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Alternate and Alternative

The Quick Answer
What is the difference between alternate and alternative?

An alternate is a replacement for the original. An alternative is another option to the original. For example:
  • The car is broken. We need alternate transport.
  • (Note that the car is no longer an option. The alternate replaces it.)

  • The car is quite expensive. I suggest alternative transport.
  • (Note that the car is still an option. The alternative is just another option.)

Alternate and Alternative

Writers are often confused by the words alternate and alternative. These words have similar meanings, but there is a difference. They cannot be used interchangeably.

Alternate

The word alternate denotes a replacement (i.e., something that serves in the place of something else). In this meaning, it can be used as a noun or an adjective. For example:
  • Our usual captain is on leave. Simon is the alternate.
  • (In this example, alternate is a noun. Note that Simon is a replacement for the usual captain.)
  • The landslide has closed the road. You must take an alternate route.
  • (In this example, alternate is an adjective. Note that the original route is no longer an option, meaning the alternate route is a replacement route.)
The word alternate can also denote taking turns. In this meaning, it can be used as a verb or an adjective. For example:
  • The lights alternate between red and white.
  • (In this example, alternate is a verb.)
  • We will take alternate shifts.
  • (In this example, alternate is an adjective.)

Alternative

The word alternative denotes another option (i.e., it does not replace the original). It can be used as a noun or an adjective. For example:
  • Our usual captain is demanding twice as much money than expected. Simon is the alternative.
  • (In this example, alternative is a noun. Note that Simon is another option for the usual captain, who remains an option. This is the difference between alternative and alternate.)
  • The landslide has closed one lane of the road. I would advise taking an alternative route.
  • (In this example, alternative is an adjective. Note that the original route remains an option.)
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