From Hull AWE
Jump to: navigation, search

Alternative is a word whose use can exasperate traditional users of English. It is derived from a Latin word (alter) which means 'other of two'. Therefore it was always said, when every educated person knew Latin, that the English word could only be used for a 'black-and-white' choice between two things.

Though the history remains true, it is now history. For over a hundred years, Modern English has allowed alternative as meaning different options, of a number greater than two. Such a famous user of the language as W.E. Gladstone, the 19th century Prime Minister, talked of "the fourth and last of these alternatives" - and he was a careful chooser of words.

    • Modern idiomatic English can use alternative, in such cases as alternative culture', to mean 'not the mainstream', 'unorthodox' and so on. In OED's (2010) words, s.v. alternative, adj., meaning 5. "Of or relating to activities that represent an unorthodox style or approach; of a kind purported to be preferable to or as acceptable as those in general use or sanctioned by the establishment. Cf. fringe ... underground .." Examples given include "alternative comedy, alternative energy, alternative medicine, etc."; and the article itself mentions alternative birthing, in which technology is minimized and hospital avoided - more routinely named 'natural childbirth' in the UK.
    • (This is related to the rather older use in the context of Science Fiction of alternative worlds and alternative Universes.

Nevertheless, if you want to keep a very traditionally minded (pedantic) Supervisor or teacher happy, consider 'option' or 'choice' as alternative words.

See also alternate - alternative.