An erratic guide to consistent writing.

Alternate

Alternate is one of those unfortunate words which is very close in appearance to a word whose meaning is both more useful in most conversations and yet also whose own meaning is just close enough to be confusing.

To alternate means to take turns repeatedly; it also can be used adjectivally as alternate, as in every other one. ‘Jane and John, I want you to do the dishes on alternate days, starting with Jane,’ means that Jane will do the dishes today, John tomorrow, Jane the day after and so on.

Alternate is often used to mean alternative as in ‘another option’. This is, I am told, a feature of North American English use, which presumably gives alternate an alternate meaning. However, there are instances when using alternate in a situation in which alternative is the sense that is meant can create confusion, even if only for a moment. Rightly or wrongly (but mostly rightly) this use is also jarring to English-speakers outside of the North America, particularly in the United Kingdom.

For the sake of style, flow, and clarity, keep the two words firmly separate.

Verdict: Try alternative’s medicine.

Choice

Like alternate above, choice is often confused with a similar but different concept. Phrases like, ‘You have two choices: either you take the wooden cup or you take the golden chalice,’ are everywhere, but they are wrong.

A choice is an act of decision: given the phrase above, the audience has one choice, but two options. The choice is between the cup and the chalice, and only one can be taken. If the chooser had two choices, he could choose each option once or one option twice.

Speaking of which, in such a phrase, there also are not two alternatives. There is the first option, the cup, and its single alternative, the chalice. When making a single choice between mutually exclusive options, there is always one fewer alternative than the total number of options.

Verdict: Choose wisely.

Jealous

Ever wondered why the Old Testament God seems to have a part-time job coveting? Well, you would know the answer to the problem, or at least how to frame the issue more accurately, if you watched more cartoons.

Although we use jealousy to mean envy quite naturally, it is a trend which should be resisted. Jealousy already encapsulates a feeling as common as envy and is succinct to boot. This distinction is especially important in formal writing where the concept and deployment of the word jealousy can be effective, even vital, parts of prose.

Verdict: Guard jealously.

Obligated

When someone is required to do something by law, rule, morality, or something force, he is obliged. For some reason, the legal term obligated, which has a subtle but important difference in meaning, has come to be seen as synonymous with, or even as the correct form for, obliged. Along with the verbal form to obligate, these words introduce stylistic clutter and make the writer seem insecure in the way that hypercorrection or misapplied specificity is wont to do. Unless working under the instruction of a solicitor, use oblige or obliged and never obligate or obligated.

Verdict: I’m not obligated to be funny.

Per Se

In another lesson brought to you by cartoons, per se rears its head only occasionally, but it is usually by people who do not really understand what they are doing with the phrase, perhaps confusing it with perchance or perchance perhaps.

Per se means (of/in) itself, intrinsically or, slightly more loosely, as such in the sense of establishing the limitations of something.

Thus, in reference to data analysis, the phrase, ‘These data do not have the ability to solve our problems per se, but they may help us assess the causes of those problems,’ is fine. Whereas ‘Per se, have you seen my wife?’ is gibberish, and spelling it ‘persay’ is just the nonsense icing on the babble cake.

Another useful, albeit more obscure, Latin word is qua which means as. It can be used to refer to facets, roles, aspects, or other nuances of character which might otherwise necessitate tedious circumlocutions, which of course we HATE on this blog.

Thus, ‘The headmaster is there but not in his role as headmaster, he is going as chairman of the charity’ can be rendered, ‘The headmaster is there qua chairman’ or even, ‘The headmaster qua chairman is there’.

Verdict: Per se quaaaaaaa?

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