Love English

How many ‘alternatives’ can there be?


© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesIn my post ‘Who’s the boss of English?’, I refuted several prescriptivist rules about English usage asserted by the journalist Simon Heffer. One was his insistence that when it comes to alternatives ‘there can only ever be two’ – that any more than two means they are ‘options’. This curious belief is worth a closer look.

Heffer is not the first to peddle it, but this dubious rule has little support among experts. Even back in 1965, Ernest Gowers’ revision of Fowler called it a ‘fetish’. It seems to originate in the word’s Latin ancestor, which specified a choice between two. But English is not Latin, and this is the etymological fallacy – the belief that a word’s older or original meaning must be more correct or solely correct. It is a misconception that underlies many false beliefs about words.

The meanings of words emerge from collective usage, not from the demands of pedants and purists. To find out what ‘alternative’ really means, we consult a good, modern dictionary whose definitions are based on large corpora of language in use. Macmillan Dictionary is one such, and it defines alternative (n.) as ‘something that you can choose instead of something else’. There is no requirement that there only be two.

Other dictionaries concur. The OED traces the noun’s history from the early seventeenth century, and in defining its various senses refers more than once to ‘two or more’ – explicitly contradicting Heffer’s assertion. The American Heritage Dictionary adds a note on the findings of its expert panel, who by an overwhelming majority reject the narrow rule.

I am, to my relief, not so self-assured as to dismiss these reputable authorities and cling to an outdated nicety, an anachronistic pet preference of what a word means – and not just cling to it but attempt to impose it on others, regardless of the evidence. Using alternative to refer to more than two things is common, standard usage. Calling it a ‘common mistake’ merely scuppers one’s credentials.

No one can uphold the etymological fallacy consistently and still hope to communicate with people. Because so many words drift semantically, the purists must pick and choose a few examples and forget all the rest. Were they to insist that orient means ‘face east’, that silly means ‘happy’, or that ‘girl’ can refer to a male child, no one would take them seriously.

So why accept certain changes in meaning but not others? What is the point of these usage prescriptions? Is the main motivation, as I wondered in my last post, to maintain shibboleths that allow an in-group to congratulate itself on observing them, and to scold anyone who doesn’t? If there are other alternatives, I’m listening.

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Stan Carey


  • I’ve asked the Guardian why they insist on “swath” when most British people would probably write & say “swathe”. They have replied with what I have come to recognise as the US editors’ line, based on etymology, or former meanings. The British press seems to be giving in to US prescriptivism, for understandable commercial reasons no doubt.

  • Edward: I’m not sure about that one. There’s a lot of overlap between swath and swathe as nouns, so I’d be wary of assuming what the majority of the UK population would use. The Guardian‘s stance on that vs. which, on the other hand, seems more clearly aligned with US prescriptivism.

  • “Options” in place of “alternatives” may work some of the time, but what of such phrases as “alternatives to meat”? The meaning is clear, to the point that rewording it to obey some supposed rule simply hinders communication. Bottom line: if we can’t say that, what are the alternatives?

  • I really don’t understand Simon Heffer. I’ve been reading a bit of his book “Strictly English”. It’s essentially quite wrong-headed, yet – unlike his admirer Neville Gwynne, who really doesn’t understand language at all – Heffer is not entirely ignorant of developments in linguistics post-1890. He even concedes the principle that etymology shouldn’t necessarily determine a word’s current meaning. Yet he clings to the belief that “alternative” must mean what he says it means (as in your post) – and he even insists that “decimate” can only mean what it originally meant in Latin (=punish one person in ten, as an example to the others). He seems rather confused.

  • Michael: This is what’s strange, that intelligent people with some grasp of how language operates (and changes) are nonetheless seduced by seemingly random usage prescriptions. It leads invariably to inconsistency and dissonance, yet they can’t — or won’t — learn to stop worrying and love variation. As I wrote in Who’s the boss of English?, if you advise on usage, you owe it to your readers to keep pace with language change. Otherwise you’ll end up out of touch.

  • Thanks, Stan. On swathe/swath: I don’t claim to know the statistics and I don’t think many people use the words or care. My clear impression, as an amateur observer (eg @boswellaffleck ) is that UK media, especially the BBC SAY swathe, and probably write it. The Guardian and other UK press are more under pressure to use US-prescribed forms – many US editors (and US Guardian subs) just won’t stand for eg swathe, which they will tell you, is “wrong “. I have been told it is wrong and on etymological grounds – just agreeing with your point, really.

  • Stan:

    Alternatives can be profound,
    Like “up” and “down,” like “lost” and “found,”
    But what about the stuff between?
    I;m not naive; from what I’ve seen
    “Alternatives” equals choices;
    In a choir, many voices.

  • On ‘swath’ or ‘swathe’: my Concise OED 7e (1982) and my Collins Concise of the same date both give them as alternatives with no comment – as long ago as that. No mention of US influence. Interesting, no?

  • Bob: That’s a good question, and shows another limitation to the bogus rule.

    Edward: The danger is that when you subscribe to the One Right Way principle (as style guides of necessity tend to do), the leap to censuring legitimate variation becomes ever smaller.

    That’s true and well said,
    And from what I’ve seen
    Any language not dead
    Is mostly ‘the stuff between’.

    Nick: Yes, it is. But prescriptivists tend not to like such overlapping usage, preferring to simplify even if it means imposing unfounded rules (cf. disinterested vs. uninterested).

  • The swath/swathe distinction is a new one on me (in the sense that I had never noticed it). I would always naturally write swathe, and swath looks odd to me. Turning to the enTenTen12 corpus I see that swath outnumbers swathe by about two to one, but this would not shake my preference for the longer form, any more than I would start writing color, or gotten, unless I was deliberately trying to write in US English.

  • Thanks, Liz, good to hear. You don’t read the Guardian, then. They insist on “swath” – see @guardianstyle
    And I suspect other UK papers are also going AmE, under pressure from their very important US editors, editions and readership.

  • Edward, I spend far more time than is good for me reading the Guardian, especially when I should be working, but this particular quirk had passed me by. I can’t help noticing when they confuse flaunt and flout though…

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