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Alternate and alternative

Alternate and alternative are sometimes confused, especially in American English. Is there a difference between alternate and alternative?

ALTERNATE

The adjective alternate means every second, every other.
We agreed to take the car to work on alternate days.

The verb alternate means fluctuate, take turns, occur after each other repeatedly.
Sunny days alternated with days of rain.

As a noun, alternate means a substitute, for example in a game or in a film.

In North American English, alternate is often used as a synonym of alternative.

The verb is pronounced as [-eit] at the end, while the adjective and the noun end with [-it].

ALTERNATIVE

The adjective alternative has two meanings. The first is different or possible.
There are several alternative methods to solve the problem.

The image shows a sign in Italian leading to all directions. This is to illustrate alternative or alternate.
You have several alternative routes in all directions

The second meaning relates to something departing from traditional norms.
They chose to lead an alternative lifestyle.

The noun alternative refers to a possibility or option.
You have two alternatives: Stay in bed and read a good book or go jogging round the lake.

In North American English, alternate is often used as a synonym for alternative.

Content or contents?

Both content and contents refer to something contained in something else. So, what’s the difference between them?

Content is uncountable; you cannot have it in the plural. It’s about the whole of something in something else.

The content of her speech really touched the audience.
He has carried out research on the fat content of frozen food.

Content providers supply material such as text, images or music, for use on websites.

In a book, content refers to all the text in a book, but contents is the list, usually at the beginning of the book, that presents the chapters of the book and what page each chapter starts at.

Obviously, contents is a countable noun – we use the plural form. We can identify the separate parts or at least understand that they are there.

He put the flask to his mouth and drank the contents.

The nouns content and contents have the stress on the first syllable.

Content pronounced with the stress on the last syllable is an adjective. This content means happy, satisfied, pleased.

He seemed very content with his new job.

Content with the stress on the last syllable can also be a verb:

I was terribly hungry but realized that I had to content myself with some wine and a small canapé or two.

Rows of small canapés with soft cheese and olives, ham, salami, etc. The image is meant to illustrate Content or contents?
A small canapé or two…

Email or e-mail? Or perhaps E-mail?

This word is a combination of electronic and mail.

Should you write it with a hyphen or not?

Some compunds have started as two words, then they have been hyphenated and finally combined into one word. Here are a couple of examples:

Proof reader – proof-reader – proofreader
Living room – living-room – livingroom

(You can read more about compounds here.)

If we follow that trend, we should write email. This form was more common in American English but is now also used in British English.

A young girl on a balcony is writing on a laptop. The image illustrates the concept of emails.
Writing an email

However, we write e-commerce and e-business, so there is a reason to use the form with a hyphen, e-mail.

Of course, if the word begins a sentence, we should write E-mail.

Other compunds with a single letter as the first part start with an uppercase letter also in the middle of a sentence:

T-shirt
U-turn
X-ray

Read more about how to write compounds here.

Re: re

Re: (with a colon) means regarding, on the subject of. Often we can find it in the subject line of an email.

Re: Your enquiry for USB cables

With the same meaning, re can be used in informal language:

We need to have a meeting re the latest sales report.

You can read more about regarding here.

In many words the prefix re means again:

Two years later he remarried.
The votes had to be recounted.
After the installation you have to restart your computer.
All components are reusable.

Since re here means again, you must avoid writing He remarried again or The votes had to be recounted again (that would mean that he married at least three times or that the votes were counted three times). You can read more about unnecessary words here.

Re can also mean a change in the position or state of something:

relocate = locate in a new place
rearrange = arrange in a different way

The image shows a room with bookshelves. There are many book on the floor, on a desk and on a step-ladder. The purpose is to illustrate the verb rearrange in a post about the prefix re..
He decided it was time to rearrange his book collection

Some words with re have two versions, one with a hyphen and one without, and there is a difference in meaning.

recollectrememberre-collectcollect again
recoverget back health, ability,
possession, etc.
re-covercover again
reformchange or improve somethingre-formcreate again
represssubdue, not allow feelings,
etc., to be expressed
re-pressmake a new copy of a recording
resentdislike or be annoyed at
someone or something
re-sentas in 'He re-sent the parcel'
reservearrange for something to be
kept for your future use
re-serveserve again

Use a hyphen if re means again and if omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with another word.

You can read more about using a hyphen here and about the difference between a hyphen and a dash here.

Afraid of and afraid for

There is a clear difference between afraid of and afraid for.

AFRAID OF

When you are afraid of, for example, snakes, you have a fear that snakes might harm you.

My little sister is afraid of spiders.

A queue of travellers waiting to embark on an aircraft at the airport of Treviso, Italy. The image illustrates the phrase 'afraid of'.
Not afraid of flying

AFRAID FOR

When you are afraid for someone, you fear that something bad might happen to them.

I’m afraid for you. Never go out alone late in the evening!
She had always been a typical mother hen, overprotective and constantly afraid for her children.

AFRAID FOLLOWED BY A VERB

Afraid can also be used with a verb.

There is a difference in meaning between these two:

Afraid of doing something (more general)
Afraid to do something (because of the potential result)

He was afraid of losing his girlfriend, but he was afraid to tell her about his fears.
I’m afraid of climbing high ladders.
The parcel had arrived but she was afraid to open it.

I’M AFRAID

You can use the phrase I’m afraid to signal that something is impossible or untrue. If you ask to see your manager, the secretary might answer, ’I’m afraid she’s not in at the moment’. This means that the secretary knows that the manager is not there but wants to present the fact in a polite way. In some other languages the corresponding phrase indicates uncertainty, and the secretary will most likely go and check if the manager is in the office.

You can also use the phrase I’m afraid to soften disagreement or bad news:

I’m afraid you have misunderstood my intentions.
You have to leave now, I’m afraid.
I’m moving into my new flat on Saturday. Do you think you could give me a hand?
I’m afraid not. I’ll be away on a fishing trip over the weekend.

Take or bring

These two words usually indicate direction in relation to the speaker or the listener.

Take implies moving something from where the speaker or listener is.
Bring implies moving something to where the speaker or listener is.

Can you take my dress to the dry cleaner’s?
You can bring it back when you come next week.
Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?
Don’t take your car to work today. There’s an awful traffic jam in the centre.
Bring the salt, please!
Wait a second! I’ll bring you your towel.

In the last sentence we look at the situation from the listener’s point of view. In other words, we have changed the perspective as in the following examples:

I took your briefcase home with me by mistake.
Thanks for your kind invitation. I’ll be happy to come. Shall I bring some wine?

A woman is standing in front of a lot of wine bottles in a liquor store
Shall I bring some wine?

To sum up, think of movement to or from a position. You can compare with come and go. You come here and you go there. Bring it here and take it there.

That said, you may find that either take or bring is used when the direction is unclear or unimportant. It can also depend on whether you put the emphasis on here or there, if you think about where you are now or already imagine yourself at another location.

When you say ”Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?”, you are still at home. When you say, ”Shall I bring some wine?”, you are already imagining yourself at the party.

With respect to and in respect of

The two phrases with respect to and in respect of both mean regarding, concerning. While both are used in British English, in respect of is seldom used in American English.

With respect to your enquiry we can deliver the items by Friday.
The two novels are very different in respect of the development of their respective characters.

Both these expressions are used in formal writing. When we speak, we have other ways of expressing regarding, as you can see here.

To a non-native English writer, the use of prepositions in English is often confusing. In the phrases we are looking at here, we cannot change the prepositions and say, for example *in respect to (for the use of the asterisk see the comment at the end of this text).

To have respect for someone is to show consideration or respect towards a person or admire someone for their qualities, ideas, actions, etc.

She has great respect for her grandfather’s long experience.
I have no respect for people who keep interrupting others.

Could you care less?

To indicate that you are not at all concerned about something you can say I couldn’t care less.

I couldn’t care less if my old car broke down. I’ve been planning to buy a new one for some time now.

If his girlfriend left him, he couldn’t care less. He has found out that she is not his type.

So the phrase I couldn’t care less means that you don’t care at all.

Therefore it seems strange to hear I could care less, which has grown in use, particularly in American English.

He was so tired that he could care less if the roof fell down on him.

To me this indicates that he actually has some concern left, so the statement is actually illogical; it implies that he still cares, that he still has worries. As a copyeditor I recommend that you stick to the original version with couldn’t.

A crashed car is being lifted on to a tow truck. The image illustrates the phrase I couldn't care less.
I couldn’t care less if I had to scrap my old car.

Overuse of the -ing form

As we have seen in another blog post, the -ing form, the present continuous, indicates that something is going on just for the moment.

I’m writing an email on the balcony (momentarily).
He writes articles for monthly magazines (a regular activity).

He is living in France (temporarily).
I live in Sweden (Sweden is my home country).

To say that someone is only temporarily in a place, the verb stay is often used.

He is staying at a small hotel in Lyon.

Man on a balcony is writing on a laptop
I’m writing an email on the balcony

Non-native speakers of English whose mother tongue only has the present simple sometimes tend to overuse the present continuous when they speak English, since they believe that to be the common form. Even if they intend to convey a permanent state, they may say or write sentences such as the following (for the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text):

*I’m travelling to work by bus every morning all year round. (Since this is what happens regularly you should say I travel to work by bus every morning.)

*He is designing cars. (This is his permanent job, hence the correct sentence would be He designs cars.)

*They are playing golf every weekend. (This is a habit, so it should be They play golf every weekend.) 

*That book is costing nine dollars. (That is a fixed price, so the correct version is That book costs nine dollars.)

*They are making washing machines. (Unless this is a temporary production and they normally make refrigerators, we must write They make washing machines.)

You should think twice before using the -ing form in English!

They are making cars. Really?

What’s the difference between He plays football and He is playing golf?

The person we are talking about is obviously a professional footballer, but right now he is active on a golf course.

In English there are two ways of expressing an action in the present tense: the present simple and the present continuous.

Present simple

We use the present simple when we talk about

– a permanent (or nearly permanent) situation:

My uncle lives in Spain.
He works as a tourist guide.

– what we do regularly, habits:

Her brother collects rare books.
I drink black coffee in the morning.

– what is always true:

Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
A Tesla coil produces high-voltage electric pulses.

– what happens in a book or a film:

The two friends plan a robbery.
At the end she marries a millionaire.

Present continuous

We use the present continuous when we talk about

– things that are happening just now:

The water is boiling, so you’d better find the teabags.
Look, it’s raining!

– a temporary situation:

My uncle is staying at a small hotel during his visit to Paris.
He is practising his French.

– temporary or annoying habits:

I’m spending too much time on Facebook these days.
Mum is always complaining about the mess in my room.

– what we see in a photo:

Here we are waiting for the limousine.
The children are waving to grandma from the balcony.

To sum up:

Use the -ing form when you write about what is going on temporarily and the simple form when you write about what happens regularly.

The same applies to the past:

Past simple

My uncle worked in a bookshop.
I ran to school every morning.

Past continuous

They were running to catch the train.
What were you doing at seven o’clock last night? I tried to call you.

A few people are running in an underground station i London. The image illustrates the present continuous They were running to catch the train.
They were running to catch the train.

Often past simple and past continuous are used in the same sentence to say that something happened in the middle of something else going on:

I was having breakfast when the doorbell rang.
When Susan came home, her husband was cooking dinner.

In the last example, her husband had started cooking before Susan came home. If he started cooking after she arrived, we would say 

When Susan came home, her husband cooked dinner.

So, to say They are making cars would suggest that the activity is only temporary. Production in a car factory is a long-term activity, and therefore we must write They make cars.

Non-native writers of English may tend to overuse the -ing form. Read more here.

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