Column; ‘Alternately’ and ‘alternatively’

Question: “Dear Grammar Guy, my friend told me the other day that I was using ‘alternatively’ and ‘alternately’ wrong. She said they shouldn’t be used interchangeably. I guess I hadn’t really thought of them as two distinct words, even. She is British, by the way. Is there a difference between American and British usage?”

Answer: Thanks for the question! You’ve gotten a little ahead of me here, so let’s backtrack a second.

“Alternate,” with a long “A” sound in the third syllable, is a verb meaning “to occur in turn repeatedly.” It can also be an adjective with more or less the same meaning – you’re probably most familiar with “alternating current,” or “AC,” which is how electricity is supplied to your home and iPhone and various other gadgets. (Take that, Edison!)

“Alternative,” on the other hand, can be a noun or an adjective meaning “one or more things available as another possibility.” An important part of the definition is that the things are mutually exclusive. In other words, it’s one or the other.

Both words share a root in the Latin alternare, meaning “interchange,” but their modern-day meanings have diverged in British English.

In American English, however, since we like to break the rules, “alternate” has come to be used colloquially to mean “available as another choice” – thus gaining a new adjectival and noun form.

The big point of contention is that only North Americans really use “alternate” – short “A” sound in the third syllable, like “alter-nit” – as a noun meaning “a person who acts as a substitute.” In America, the runner-up in a competition might act as the alternate if the first-place contest can’t fulfill their duties. In Britain, they would act as the alternative.

So, is it wrong to use “alternatively” and “alternately” interchangeably? It is if you are substituting “alternatively” for “alternately.” Flip that around, though, and modern usage puts you in the clear – at least in the good ol’ U.S.A.