April 23, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: alternate and alternative, in or by contrast

Posted in alternative and alternate, in or by contrast at 11:25 pm by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Alternate vs. alternative

Today’s first tip was inspired by the following headline in Sunday’s Post-Gazette:

“Don’t know much about history

2 new books create alternate views of the past through the selective use of facts Sunday, April 20, 2008 By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette”

What the headline should have said is:

“2 new books create alternative views of the past through the selective use of facts”

“Alternate” and “alternative” are NOT synonyms although there is a move in that direction (and some dictionaries will include “alternative” as the 3rd or 4th definition of “alternate”). I know language is evolving, but you have to draw the line somewhere. And, for me, the egregious use of “alternate” when one means “alternative” is where I make a stand.

When used as an adjective, “alternate” means “every other” or “a substitute.”


We have a standing meeting to discuss the study on alternate Fridays at 4:00 PM.

If this design doesn’t work, I have an alternate design I can show you.

As an adjective, the most common use of “alternative” is “allowing a choice between two or more things.” “Alternative” implies a choice where “alternate” does not.


Since this experiment didn’t work out, we have to find alternative approaches.

One alternative plan would be to meet later.

If this design doesn’t work, I have alternative designs I can show you. Compare this with the second example in the first set.

Tip 2: “In contrast” vs. “by contrast”

Someone wrote: “Can you write about “in contrast” vs. “by contrast” sometime?”

Okay, here goes. “In contrast” and “by contrast” mean the same thing: the act of comparing in order to show differences. The difference lies in the way the words are used. “In contrast” is usually followed by “to” or “with” and requires a noun to follow it. “By contrast” is usually followed or preceded by the subject of the sentence.


In contrast to the diligent bee, the butterfly flies hither and yon with no apparent purpose.

In contrast with the chorus of birdsongs in my backyard, my front yard is serenaded by the sound of rumbling buses flying down the street.

By contrast, the Picasso is more vibrant and full of life.

The cats will often sleep the day away. The dogs, by contrast, never settle down.



  1. Matt said,

    I like the second tip very much but am still wondering what happens in the case of “stark/sharp contrast”?
    1. Is either one acceptable in standard written English?
    2. It can be used with “in”, I am convinced, but also with “by” = “by stark contrast”? It sounds odd to me, yet I am not a native speaker and would love to hear a more informed opinion on that matter.

    Thanks, Matt

  2. Matt said,

    Just another brief comment:

    Using “by contrast to/with” instead of “in” would be clearly wrong?

  3. dls said,

    Matt, when using ‘stark’ or ‘sharp, you can only use ‘in contrast’ so your instincts are correct. And yes, using ‘by’ with ‘contrast to/with’ is definitely incorrect.

  4. Hi,

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  5. Kevin said,

    The difference is greater than that.

    “Sarah Palin is not intelligent. By contrast, Bush Jnr is extremely clever”

    Means that Bush is smarter than Palin but by other standards is not smart.

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  7. Heinz said,

    I would have explained “in contrast” and “by contrast” exactly the same way. But I think the word “usually” in the post is very important. I had to correct an exam and looked the words up again. So, this is the sentence I found in the OALD:

    On average the girls spend four hours a week chatting to friends on the phone. In contrast, very few of the boys spend more than five minutes a day talking to their friends in this way.

    I would have used “By contrast” here; just like the admin – if I understood him/her right. But “in” is also correct, at least in British English.

    You can find the dictionary entry here:

    Best regards

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