Alternative grammar.

I remember reading that the word alternative for some reason can only be used about a second choice, so when people write “alternatives”, they should really use some other word, like possibilities. Actually, I was reading this in a Norwegian book (on logic), but assuming the word is of Latin (or Greek, or something) origin, I guess the same rules apply in English, as well.
Can anyone extrapolate?

I extrapolated this from Merriam-Webster:

1 a : a proposition or situation offering a choice between two or more things only one of which may be chosen b : an opportunity for deciding between two or more courses or propositions
2 a : one of two or more things, courses, or propositions to be chosen b : something which can be chosen instead <the only alternative to intervention>

Now, my version of the OED (1920s edition) does mostly agree with your premise:

1 Stating or offering the one or the other of two things of which either may be taken.
2 Of two things: Such that one or the other may be chosen, the choice of either involving the rejection of the other. (Sometimes of more than two)

In short, it appears to have originally meant only two choices, but no longer. This is similar to “dilemma,” which originally meant two choices, but has been diluted through common usage.

You’re probably remembering the misuse of “alternative” vs. “alternate,” which are often confused.

“Alternative,” even when meaning more than one option (not the original meaning, but one which seems to be becoming standard), means choosing another opetion.

“Alternate” means chosing between two options, one at a time.

People sometimes might say “He got his electric power from alternate sources” where “alternative” is considered correct (though this usage is also becoming common). There’s also the other issue: “We meet on alternative Tuesdays” when “alternate” is correct, and no one argues this is correct yet.

Correct and correct, of course. language is subject to evolution as everything else. I was interested in finding out more about this, and both of you did an excellent job, thanks!

Not even prescriptionists argue that alternative must be restricted to two choices. The second edition of Folwer’s Modern English Usage says:

In other words, you can choose among several alternatives. English has an overwhelming tendency not to pay attention to the literal original meaning of its words.

In philosophy, we still talk about "trilemma"s, and I wouldn’t be suprised to find someone talking about "quadralemma"s and so on. But in philosophy, we like to be cheeky about stuff like that.


Prescriptivists. :wink:

A descriptivist is someone who thinks that if enough people make the same error, it’s not an error anymore.

Ugh. Yes.

:smack: And it’s Fowler’s, too, not Folwer’s.

And yet desciptivists are correct and prescriptivists are wrong. Go figure. :slight_smile:

What are prescriptivists wrong about?

I think both a descriptivist and a prescriptivist can be right.


prescriptivists should keep their mouth.

Possibly, but not about the same issues. Pretty much by definition, they are on opposite sides of the way to handle any specific question.

Ex-prescriptivist speaking.

Heck, even I agree with that! :smiley:

Actually, could you give me an example of a question they would answer differently?

I can’t think of any, suprisingly!

A descriptivist is not committed to saying there’s no such thing as correct and incorrect usage. And a prescriptivist is not committed to saying anything at all about actual (as opposed to recommended) usage. For reasons like these, I’m finding it difficult to see how the two could be opposed.

I’m saying this in full knowledge of the fact that in Linguistics courses, we’re often presented the two views as though they are in opposition. But I’ve yet to be able to make sense of the opposition–I don’t see where they disagree.

They may disagree in this sense: They may have incorrect ideas as to what the other side actually says or is implicitly commited to.


I have to disagree with you. Prescriptivists - by definition - have rules they want you to apply. Always. Period. Whether they are right or wrong, or make sense today, or ever made sense. The classic examples are ending a sentence with a preposition or splitting an infinitive. There are people who will insist on this as the only way to write English and will give you a demerit if you break the rules. They really exist. I know some.

No prescriptivist would ever, under any circumstances, agree that alternative could be used for more than two choices, any more than they would allow you to say “between” when referring to more than two options.

Read any language thread in GQ and you’ll come across people who will tell you what the answer has to be, disregarding all common usage. Heck, read this thread for a loud argument with descriptivists on one side and a variety of people, some of whom are prescriptivists, on the other.

Have you never read John Simon on words? Do you never read William Safire’s word books, with all the angry letters from prescriptivists? Or the word column in the back of the Atlantic, in which people keep writing in saying that their English teachers taught them one way and they can’t understand why others do things differently? Or the ones who complain that dictionaries are too lenient because they’ve all gone over to the dark side since Webster’s Second?

Prescriptivists and descriptivists are polar opposites. If this agree on anything it is by sheer accident.

Descriptivist are right because we say we are right. And there are more of us. So what ‘ya gonna’ do 'bout it?

A descriptivist can do this, and still be a descriptivist. It might be, of course, that no actual descriptivist actually does this. But this is not an implication of the doctrine of descriptivism. A descriptivist can say “here’s how language actually works,” and also, “Here’s how you ought to speak (in order to express such-and-such proposition under such-and-such conditions)” all in the same breath, and remain a perfectly good descriptivist. He can even be very strict about the latter clause and remain a perfectly good descriptivist, albeit a strange one given the actual social landscape constituted by the descriptivsm/prescriptivism “divide.”

Descriptivism is not the doctrine that “There is no such thing as correct and incorrect usage.” Although, now that I think of it, I’m not sure what I’d say descriptivism is. But still, I know at least one thing it’s not–the thing I just said it isn’t. I also am sure it’s not the doctrine that “A usage is correct for a person if and only if it is the usage that person is prone to enact.” That would be nonsense–it would make “correct” an empty term. People do not generally intend to adhere to empty doctrines, so I conclude this is not what is intended by the doctrine of descriptivism.

Think of it this way. Descriptivists do not make prescriptions on usage, qua descriptivists. Prescriptivists only make prescriptions on usage qua prescriptivists. It follows from these two facts that it is impossible for prescriptivists and descriptivists to disagree! (Qua prescriptivist and descriptivist.)

Actually, counterexamples to your “alternative” example here have already been provided in this thread.

Will read, though my little logical argument above is making me very skeptical that they could actually be disagreeing qua descriptivists and prescriptivists.

Sure, but where’s the disagreement with descriptivism? These guys you mention may be mistakenly concieving of descriptivism as offering (to their mind) incorrect recommendations on usage–but if they are doing this, they are misconcieving descriptivism, (since descriptivism offers no prescriptions,) and hence failing to genuinely disagree with it!


In the thread you linked to, I found the following from John Mace:

He’s saying something closely related to the point I’m trying to make. A prescriptivist, in John’s terminology, talks about how words “should” be used. A descriptivist, again using John’s terminology, talks about what words do actually mean. These are (as John has intended the phrases) two different questions. Since they’re two different questions, its impossible to find a disagreement between two people simply in virtue of the fact that one holds some particular belief about the “should” and the other holds some particular belief about the “does.” It follows that p’ists and d’ists can’t disagree.

Now, it happens that in colloquial English, the two questions are asked using the same phrase most of the time–“What does X mean.” Probably in part for this reason, the two questions are usually confused together by people who haven’t learned the distinction somehow.

This is what causes the disagreements–one person is talking about how the word should be used and says “X means Y” while another is talking about how it is actually used and says “X means Z” instead.

Or, one person, having confused the two questions together, is thinking “X is used to refer to Z, and words should be used to refer to what they are actually used to refer to,” and so says “X means Z,” while the other person (also confused) may be thinking “X historically has meant Y, and words should be used to refer to what they have historically been used to refer to,” and so says, “X means Y.” In this case, the two people do disagree, but this is not due to either being a prescriptivst and the other a descriptivist–in this case, both are being prescriptivists, and where they disagree is in their rationales for their prescriptions.

These were extremely simplified examples, but they do basically illustrate the kin of things I think are happening in the p’ism d’ism debate.

(Apologies to John Mace for co-opting his words to make a point he might not have thought he agreed with, for all I know.)


A third post… sorry…

Thus speaketh Wikipedia:

That sounds about right to me. And it disagrees with some things I’ve said in my other two posts here.

Most importantly, this quote says a descriptivist can give prescriptions on usage–does say, qua descriptivist, which are the “correct” and which the “incorrect” usages.

If this is the right way to define descriptivism, then I still have a point to make nevertheless: it has seemed to me that usually what d’ists call “standard English” is what the p’ist calls “correct English.” If I’m right about this, then the dispute between them is just as follows:

  1. They disagree about terms. One says we should call usages “correct” and ther says we should call them “standard.”
  2. They disagree about the method that should be used to determine which are the correct/standard usages. One says we should look to a certain traditional canon of rules, the other says we should look to actual usage.

On this terminology, I am a descriptivist of a certain sort–I think we should look to actual usage, but I also think we should look to the actual usage of the terms “correct” and “right” when applied to usages, and allow this to inform how we ourselves use these terms. So I am for this reason a descriptivist who thinks descriptivists should feel more comfortable, in colloquial contexts, using the terms “correct” in much the same way they are used by the prescriptivist.

That last paragraph was too much too fast, sorry, but I gotta go now.


While I have to admit that in your three posts you lost me in the turns, I think, if I read you correctly, er, rightly, er, as you wished, that the above quote really differentiates our positions.

I don’t care what in theory divides d’ists from p’ists. I do care what in reality they say on message boards and elsewhere.

In reality d’ists often do indeed say that a certain usage is considered standard or used by better writers or can be recommended for a particular purpose.

And in reality p’ists will often tell you things that are just wrong because their understanding of the rules is stronger than their knowledge of working English.

That’s enough of a difference for me. The rest is for an argument about language that I have no interest in.

As I said, I used to be more p’ist than I am now. But I spent a great many years reading linguists on the English language, and their actual study of real-world usage made the p’ist arguments look ludicrously wrong. My real-world study of p’ists offering “advice” and “rules” has simply confirmed this. I’ve called p’ists “illiterate pedants” because they know everything about the language except how it actually works. I, as a working writer, care totally about how the language actually works.

You can make sophist arguments about “correctness,” but my philosophy has become much simpler: fuck 'em.