Motorists are advised to seek alternatives

When deciding on alternate vs. alternative, what choice do you have?

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Cars, taxis, trucks, and busses clog these Boston streets during morning rush hour.

Whoever decided that the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line obviously didn't do much driving in Boston.

I spend a fair bit of my time behind the wheel trying to get from one side of the Charles River to the other. Surprisingly often, the best way between two points in Boston is through Cambridge. And oh, yes, are the Red Sox in town? I have their schedule, less because I'm a fan than because I want to avoid traffic at Fenway Park.

But Boston traffic jams, however intense, tend to be brief, in my experience. They're not nearly as serious as the one depicted in a cartoon years ago by the late Virgil Partch in the Los Angeles Times. Stuck hopelessly amid multiple lanes of car-clogged freeway, Partch's protagonist, Big George, puts his head out the window of his car to scream helplessly, and futilely, at the traffic helicopter circling far overhead, "What alternate routes??!!"

Or should that be "alternative routes"?

An inquiring reader wants to know. The phrase I have etched in thought from my California childhood, "Motorists are advised to seek alternate routes," is alive and well. Across the United States, local news organizations and public works departments continue to issue this counsel.

But "alternative routes" is out there as well – with over twice as many hits in a Google search just now. "Alternative" skews international, however. My top hits were from an Oxford English learners' dictionary and from The Jakarta Post.

To understand the nuances here, let's start with alternation, which involves "taking turns."

When we say that a plant has "alternate leaves," we mean that one leaf branches off from one side of a stem, and then the next branches off a little farther down from the other side. The leaves take turns. The "opposite" of alternate is, as it happens, opposite: Leaves branch in pairs directly opposite to each other, as if making up tiny cross streets up and down an avenue.

When we say, "The board meets on alternate Tuesdays," we mean that the meeting Tuesdays "take turns" with the nonmeeting Tuesdays.

Both alternate and alternative come from Latin and are rooted in the idea of "the other" and notions of taking turns, one after the other. The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about the distinction between the two: "Alternate means 'by turns'; alternative means 'offering a choice.' "

Alternate refers to certain kinds of jurors, delegates, or occasionally understudies in a play – either adjectivally ("an alternate juror") or as a stand-alone noun ("three delegates and an alternate"). It's a usage that goes back more than a century and a half. But some sticklers prefer alternative even here, since the jurors aren't taking turns (with Juror A hearing testimony Monday, let's say, and Juror B in the box on Tuesday). Rather, the alternates provide a "choice," giving the judge options, if, for instance, Juror A is found to be texting the defendant.

Where alternate is morally neutral, alternative can carry a fairly heavy weight of "otherness," of "difference," for good or ill. There's "the alternative music scene," for instance. And some readers may recall how, during the early days of the AIDS crisis, public health officials would speak nervously of how it affected primarily "people with alternative lifestyles."

I'm not sure I'll ever be a stickler on this one. But I can see why people prefer alternative to cover the meaning of "a different route," even if Big George saw no way out.

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