Safire 'On Language' - alternate and alternative

Safire 'On Language' - alternate and alternative

William Safire, the great language columnist who defended and described the English language so well in his columns and books, could sometimes slip up and use a word badly. Even in his books, such as "On Language," he was wise and humble enough to use his own errors to explain how he'd erred and counsel his readers not to do as he had done.

One of the early examples of this in "On Language" is headed "alternate/alternative" and explains the usage of each word. Safire wrote that he had told the word "not to use 'centers around' when it meant 'centers on,' " then added that he had written "The confusion stems from the alternate phrase 'revolves around.' " He admitted that while he made the correct point, he'd used the adjective "alternate" incorrectly.

As Safire explained, "A reader in England makes this correction: 'To use "alternate"  as a synonym for "alternative" is considered to be a sign of semiliteracy outside the U.S.A. Unfortunately, Webster's Third Unabridged allows this (misuse). The two words really do have quite separate and distinct meanings: "alternate" implies the taking of turns, and "alternative" implies a choice.'"

Safire called his English reader's point a "nice distinction," a phrase I appreciate. Webster's Third is right for "those who believe that usage determines 'correctness.'" Safire wrote, and "a century ago, 'alternative' meant 'by turns,' and was even then synonymous with 'alternate.' But if you like to use words that split hairs and make meaning more precise, then you will tell common usage it is befogging a useful difference by merging 'alternate' with 'alternative.' Sometimes it is worth putting up a scrap."

I like this entry in "On Language" because it strikes what Safire calls "a blow for precision." He adds something that's been behind my Words Worth Defending category from the beginning: "A worthy distinction deserves all the protection it can get."

After all, is there any alternative?

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.

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