Word Choice: Alternatively vs. Alternately
  • 2-minute read
  • 18th May 2019

Word Choice: Alternatively vs. Alternately

“Alternatively” and “alternately” look similar because they both come from the Latin term alternatus. However, nowadays, these terms have their own distinct meanings. It is thus important not to mix them up in your writing. Check out our guide below for advice on how they should be used.

Alternatively (Another Possibility)

“Alternatively” is an adverb. We use this term to introduce a new option or possibility as opposed to a prior proposal. For instance:

You could sit here feeling unwell or, alternatively, go to see a doctor.

Significantly, this term usually implies picking between or considering separate, mutually exclusive possibilities. Most of the time, then, saying “alternatively” is like saying “instead” or “otherwise.”

Alternately (One After the Other)

“Alternately” is also an adverb.  We use it when something switches back and forth between two states, or when two or more things take turns. For example, we could use it in a sentence like this:

The fever left me feeling alternately hot and cold.

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Here, “alternately” shows that the speaker felt first hot and then cold, switching between the two. This makes “alternately” like the verb “alternate,” which means “switch repeatedly.” And this is importantly distinct from having two mutually exclusive “alternatives.”

In addition, some US English dictionaries list “alternately” as a variant spelling of “alternatively.” You can therefore use it to introduce a new option or possibility in some cases. However, this is a less formal usage, and some may consider it incorrect (especially outside North America).

Summary: Alternatively or Alternately?

To use these words correctly, keep the following definitions in mind:

  • We use alternatively to introduce another option or possibility.
  • Alternately means to switch between things or states successively.

So, if you’re suggesting a different possibility or course of action, you will need “alternatively.” But if you have two or more things or states replacing one another, the correct term will be “alternately.”

And if you need help checking your writing is error free, drop us a line today.

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