• 2-minute read
  • 6th July 2015

Word Choice: Altar vs. Alter

One little letter can make a very big difference sometimes, so it is important to make sure you know the difference between similarly spelled words which nevertheless have dissimilar meanings. In the case of altar and alter, for instance, the contrast couldn’t be much bigger!

While alter is a commonly used verb in English, altar is a noun which should only be used in a very specific context. Mixing these words up can therefore seriously impact upon the quality of your written work. So to help out we’ve thrown together this guide on how to use them.

Alter (Modify)

Alter is a verb which means “change” or “modify.” Thus if you are looking to describe an adjustment or change that something has undergone, use the word alter:

After his sister forgave him, William decided to alter his will to include her.

Altar (A Ceremonial Table)

Altar, on the other hand, is a noun which refers to a table or raised surface used in religious ceremonies, including the Christian Eucharist. For example:

The congregation faced the altar as they awaited Holy Communion.

The word altar is also sometimes seen in the idiom “to sacrifice X on the altar of X.” This means to give up or neglect something in favor something else. Usually this is used in a negative way, such as:

John sacrificed his family life on the altar of his career.

The above relies upon the religious meaning of altar, metaphorically suggesting that John has failed to fulfill his family duties by sacrificing them in favor his work.

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Alter or Altar?

It is quite easy to remember which of “alter” or “altar” to use in any given situation. Just keep the following in mind:

Alter (verb) = Change

Altar (noun) = A ceremonial table

If you’re looking for a word meaning “change” or “modify,” it will always be a verb you need. As such, “alter” is the term you’re after.

The noun “altar,” meanwhile, will usually only be applicable if you’re describing a religious ceremony of some kind.

For further advice on vocabulary in your writing, you will find plenty of helpful tips in the word choice archive section of our academic blog.

And to make sure that the spelling, grammar and vocabulary in your work are perfect, Proofed’s professional proofreaders provide a comprehensive range of proofreading and formatting services.

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