Printable Version
Pronunciation: awl-têr-nê-tiv Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective, noun

Meaning: 1. Substitute, another possibility, another possible course of action, as 'an alternative route'. 2. Outside customary behavior, unconventional, as 'an alternative life-style'.

Notes: This adjective is often used as a noun referring to an alternative choice or course of action: 'The only alternative to fixing his old car was buying a new one." It is often confused with the adjective alternate [awl-têr-nêt], which can mean (1) "taking turns", as 'alternate bouts of flu and migraines' or (2) "every other in a series", as 'to read alternate lines'. Some dictionaries accept this (mis?)usage today.

In Play: The basic sense of this word when used as an adjective, is "a substitute": "After three weeks of her cousin's presence in her house, Elsbeth was looking for alternative lodgings for her." But the adjective is just as often used as a noun: "Gosford never considered almond milk a reasonable alternative for moo-juice, the real stuff from cows."

Word History: This word is haunted by its history, when some thought its reference was limited to an only option. This is because its root is Latin alter "the other (of two)". However, comments like, "There plenty of alternatives to what you are doing," is commonplace today. Today's word comes from the verb to alternate meaning "to take turns" but it has disengaged itself from the verb semantically. The verb comes from Latin alternatus "one after the other", the past participle of alternare "to do one thing after the other" based on alter "the other (of two)". Latin inherited this word from PIE al- "besides, other" + -ter, a common suffix also seen in mater "mother" and pater "father". We find two words in Latin without the suffix: alius "another, other, something else" and uls "beyond", underlying ulterior. (Today's unexpectedly complicated Good Word was contributed recently via the Agora by our old Australian friend David Myer.)

Dr. Goodword,

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