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August 13, 2007


One more example of word mangling, a pet peeve of mine for long, occurs in the following excerpt, perhaps unintentionally:

The alternate (but erroneous) spelling miniscule is becoming increasingly common because many now trace the word to mini.

The correct word should be alternative, not alternate.

No, it wasn't unintentional. I hope that better grammarians than myself will weigh in.

Dont' be too peeved, VP. The way I have used the word may have been an eggcorn to begin with. But the usage is so common now that as an adjective, it has become a widely accepted alternative to alternative. See definition #4.

My dictionary says either word can be used as an adjective, as Ruchira states. But it seems to me that if this is a case of an "eggcornism," then the mistake actually went opposite to the way VP suggests. That is, "alternate" is always an adjective*; whereas, "alternative" can be a noun or an adjective. It leads me to suppose that previously, the correct construction would have been "alternate spelling," but of late people have used the word "alternative"--perhaps previously always a noun--to mean "alternate."

* The verb, "alternate," has the same spelling but a different pronunciation.

Thanks, Usha. That's what I thought.

I use the two words as you describe. "Alternate" as adjective and verb; "Alternative" as noun but rarely as an adjective.

The issue is not whether either word is being used as a noun or verb or adjective. It is one of meaning. "Alternate" means a succession by turns, or "every other". On the other hand, "alternative" indicates a choice.

My Oxford English Reference dictionary mentions (in its 5th meaning) that the two words are now being used equivalently in North America. As Ruchira pointed out, Webster's Online does so as well.

I am normally open to American linguistic innovations, but for some reason, this one has been stuck in my gullet for a while. It is just as unreasonable as any of my myriad other pet peeves.

"Alternate," "alternative" - same difference ! So long we understand each other.:-)

And VP, what's the point of peeving (that's a word, believe me) if we can't be unreasonable and cantankerous?

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Books by Namit Arora

  • “Namit Arora does for Silicon Valley what Tom Wolfe did for Wall Street in The Bonfire of the Vanities: with keen eye and sharp wit, he captures the culture and mores of the place. But Arora is funnier. And sweeter.” —S. Abbas Raza, Editor, 3QD.

  • The Lottery of Birth reveals Namit Arora to be one of our finest critics. In a raucous public sphere marked by blame and recrimination, these essays announce a bracing sensibility, as compassionate as it is curious, intelligent and nuanced.” —Pankaj Mishra

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