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.)

A Quick Test