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What is the difference between alternately and alternatively? I've seen both words being used, but which one is grammatically correct?

He could do X. Or alternately, he could do Y.
He could do X. Or alternatively, he could do Y.

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I think the answer is, it doesn't matter (i.e. they mean similar enough things for the distinction not to matter). I'm sure someone will look it up though –  Matt Эллен Jul 24 '11 at 15:49

3 Answers 3

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Alternately means switching between two alternatives, alternatively means doing something different.

I love pizza and Mexican food, I eat them alternately.

Means Monday I ate pizza, Tuesday tacos, Wednesday pizza again, Thursday burrito, Friday went to the Hospital to get my arteries roto-rooted.

I love pizza but alternatively I eat Mexican.

Means both choices are good, but says nothing about when or the order in which I eat them.

Alternately is about switching. Alternatively is about enumerating options.

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I love your answer! :) –  Legend Jun 30 '12 at 21:19
    
Why are so many people using "alternate" when they mean "alternative"?! Recently, I see this everywhere and it annoys me immensely! –  Ярослав Рахматуллин Mar 20 '13 at 10:45
    
Your answer describes British English usage very well. In my observation, Americans have a greater tendency to use 'alternately' in both senses (although this is by no means universal – many of them observe the same distinction that is made in British English usage). –  Erik Kowal yesterday

Fraser Orr's answer corresponds to how I learned English in the UK in the 50's and 60's.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary, under 'alternate', gives its first six meanings consistent with this, but then it says

II. Senses equating to alternative adj. Chiefly N. Amer.

with examples from 1776.

And for "alternative" the first meaning given (attested from 1540) is

  1. Characterized by alternation; alternating, alternate.

Which indicates that the neat distinction Fraser Orr makes simply does not hold in the real world - it does for some people (such as me); but there is ample authority for using the words either way round.

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I think Colin makes a good point here. Of particular interest is the noun form "alternate", which is very commonly used to simply mean an optional substitute. This seems pretty common in sports, theater, and various other competitive endeavors. +1 Colin. –  Fraser Orr Jul 25 '11 at 15:06
    
Very good Colin. I think, although this is a good point, alteriantily I think it's wrong –  bilbo baggins Sep 18 at 9:36

a traffic sign that reads "alternate route" is not telling you to use the opposite route as last time every time you come to the same sign on the road. this is not the same as the action 'to alternate' (verb)

an alternate route or alternate plan or alternate contingency do not flip back and forth between opposing states in any way. The only alternate plan I have is to take the first off-ramp. (adjective) Taking the first off-ramp is my only alternative. (noun)

if alternative in this sentence means 'alternate plan' then 'alternative plan' means 'alternate plan plan' american english seems full of terms from technical jargon that originated from proper english, but have come to replace it.

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