Episode 199: December 5, 2009
by Rob Reinalda
This week we’ll discuss choices about how best to use the words “option” and “alternative.”
Frequently the words “option” and “alternative” are used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Do you know what it is?
Option Versus Alternative
Let’s say Horatio has a primary plan of action. He says, “I’m going to finish this report before we leave on our family trip this holiday weekend. That way I can enjoy the holiday, help with the driving, and relax when we get home Sunday afternoon.”
Great plan, but is that the only possibility? No, Horatio has some alternatives to Plan A. Let’s count them:
Horatio can work on his report in the car going to and from the destination.
He can carve out some time while he's at Aunt Esther’s house and finish the report there; it should take only a few hours, right?
Horatio can wait until he gets home and spend Sunday evening doing the report.
For the sake of this illustration, let’s leave it at that. After all, Horatio has enough to handle without computing all the permutations.
So, Horatio has the original Plan A, and the three other possibilities. How many alternatives does he have?
Did you say four? Nope. The answer is three—besides the original plan, Horatio has three alternatives. An alternative has to be an alternative to something else. In this case his three contingency plans are alternatives to Plan A (in case the original, favored plan doesn’t work out, for example).
Horatio does, however, have four options. He could opt to finish that report in any of the four methods he has devised.
The difference between the two is one—the number one, that is. Horatio will invariably have one more option than alternative.
Remember that the “o” in “option” is also the first letter of “one,” and there’s always one more option than there are alternatives.
Here's the tip. If you’re waiting tables, a small tip is disappointing, but this week’s small tip makes life easy for Horatio and other writers and editors. Remember that the “o” in “option” is also the first letter of “one,” and there’s always one more option than there are alternatives. If you have 11 alternatives, you’ll have 12 options.
It ends up, then, that every alternative is an option, but not every option is truly an alternative—not an alternative to the original element, that is.
Sure, one could contend that the first choice is an alternative to the last, but that’s semantic quibbling. Besides, that premise doesn’t hold up, because the last possibility would then become the original. Dizzy yet, wiseguy?
Also, hard-core traditionalists insist that you should only use the word “alternative” when there are two choices and no more because "alternative" comes from the Latin word "alter," which means "the other of two," but our research shows that almost nobody adheres to this “rule,” including most modern style experts, so you can ignore it.
Alternate Versus Alternative
Now let's move on and think about the word “alternate”; it's become commonly used where “alternative” would be a better choice.
For example, it’s used in the media, such as in a traffic report: “A tractor-trailer jackknifed, dumping a load of jackknives on Interstate 95. Try an alternate route.”
Well, that actually should be an alternative route. As we discussed earlier, you have an original element—in this case, a travel route—and then an alternative, or two, or seven.
In any case, we hope the detour doesn’t delay Horatio’s family too much as they head to Aunt Esther’s bungalow.
Nevertheless, “alternate” has become a recognized synonym for “substitute,” and it is widely used as such. There’s probably a case of the chicken and the egg there.
For example, in the judicial system, we hear about “alternate jurors”—who could be called “alternative jurors,” as they are available to take the place of any juror who doesn’t work out. But “alternate juror” has become the accepted term, so if juror No. 8 is removed because of illness or misconduct or whatever, then an alternate is impaneled.
“Alternate” in another sense means alternating, every second one—like odd- and even-numbered elements.
To be alternate jurors in this sense, imagine this visual: The jurors come out of the jury room and take their places in the jury box. As they go, odd-numbered jurors take seats in the front row, and even-numbered jurors go to chairs in the back row. Hence, they alternate (the verb form) between the two rows.
Let’s get back to Horatio and his family’s alternative route to Aunt Esther’s. Now, imagine that two lanes of traffic are squeezed into one. The cars alternate; first one from the left lane, then one from the right, as they merge. You’ve even seen the signs: ALTERNATE MERGE. It’s not terrific grammar, but it is the right usage. And the motorists—the courteous ones, anyway—comply, and traffic flows.
And Horatio, stuck in the back seat with nothing to do, now wishes he had brought along that work report so he could get some work done.
This podcast was written by Rob Reinalda, executive editor for Ragan Communications (word_czar on Twitter), and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of The Grammar Devotional, which many people have been buying as gifts for their writer friends or for their kids' teachers.
Web Bonus for Teachers
If Squiggly has two alternatives to doing the dishes, how many options does he have? [Answer: three]
If Aardvark has five options, how many alternatives does he have to the first choice? [Answer: four]
Is it correct to speak of “alternate players” or “alternative players” on a team? [Answer: Both are correct. “Alternative” is technically correct, but “alternate” is now the most common and widely accepted usage.]
Which is correct: “He fasted on alternate days” or “He fasted on alternative days”? [Answer: If you mean to indicate that he fasted every other day, then “alternate” is the right choice.]