Thursday, 1 September 2011

Choices, options and alternatives

The words choices, options and alternatives are sometimes incorrectly used.

Does the following sound familiar? “You have two choices: either you can do x, or you can do y.” But that’s only one choice, not two – there are two options being presented, not two choices.

We also hear and read statements like, “We must look at all the alternatives” and “There are four alternatives.” Do these sentences represent the correct use of the word alternatives?

According to the origin of the word, alternative should be used only if only two options are available, since the Latin word alter, from which our word is derived, means “one or the other of (only) two”.

According to the 2004 Concise Oxford English Dictionary and The right word at the right time, however, the use of alternative(s) in the case of more than two options is (now) generally acceptable. This is regrettable, since the blurring of the distinction between alternative and option represents yet another weakening, however small it may appear to be, of our power of expression.

Some may ask whether the difference between the two words is really as important as I’m suggesting.

One should not be pedantic for the mere sake of being so, but when meaningful distinctions are lost through repeated incorrect or sloppy usage, uncertainty of meaning is almost certain to follow the resulting imprecision.

The sentence “The consultants were asked to devise efficient alternatives to the long queues at the Enquiries counter” is perfectly in order, since each alternative suggested would stand (separately) in an either-or relationship to the present practice, thus satisfying the requirement of only two options involved in each instance. The sentence “We must consider all the alternatives” could also be in order if the context clarifies the total number of options involved.

The right word at the right time warns, however, that “(there is a slight danger … in specifying a number before ‘alternatives’. To say ‘There are three alternatives’ is probably to imply that a total of three possibilities exists, but it could (also) suggest a total of four possibilities – one chief possibility, and three alternatives.”


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