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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.

Are you grateful or thankful?

We use grateful and thankful to express our thanks for something. Even if the two words are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between them. So, what is the difference between grateful and thankful?

GRATEFUL

Grateful is used to express our gratitude when somebody is kind to us or helps us in a way that will have a long-time effect.

Many thanks for helping us move into our new flat. We are so grateful.
I am particularly grateful to my supervisor for her support and encouragement.

You can feel grateful when you are in a third-world country and realise that at home you have access to fresh air and clean water.

You can use grateful when you make a request in a formal letter:

I would be grateful if you would send me your latest brochure.

THANKFUL

Thankful is used when you feel relieved that something dangerous or unpleasant did not happen.

We had a burglary last week. I’m so thankful that my computer was not stolen.
My brother had a nasty car accident. We are all thankful that he was not seriously injured.

A damaged car is being lifted on to a lorry. The image illustrates the difference between grateful and thankful.
A nasty car accident

You are also thankful when somebody has done something and the situation would have been much worse if they had not done anything.

To sum up, if you are grateful, you express gratitude to somebody for something they have done or given and if you are thankful, you feel relief or happiness over something.

The corresponding nouns are gratitude and thankfulness.

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…

Assure, reassure, ensure and insure

Even if these words all have something to do with being sure, they are easily confused.

  • Assure means to tell someone that something will happen or that something is definitely true.

My doctor has assured me that I will be able to read without glasses after my surgery.

  • To reassure somebody means to  make them feel less worried or frightened about a problem.

They reassured us that they would look into the matter.

  • Ensure means to make sure that something will (or will not) happen.

Please ensure that all windows are closed and all doors are locked before you leave the building.

  • Insure means to buy insurance to protect against something bad happening to you or your possessions.

You’d better insure your gear before you go hiking in the mountains.

A man wearing a large rucksack is hiking in the mountains. The image illustrates the idea of insuring gear before doing something adventurous.
You’d better insure your gear before you go hiking in the mountains

A nice little old lady and a big bad wolf –about the order of adjectives

An adjective describes or modifies a noun.

A big car
A black car
An Italian car

We may have more than one adjective in front of a noun.

A big black Italian car

In English there is a fixed order of adjectives.

1. Opinion
2. Size
3. Physical quality
4. Shape
5. Age
6. Colour
7. Origin/nationality
8. Material
9. Type
10. Purpose

You would not write *an old nice little ladya nice little old lady sounds much better (for the use of the asterisk see the comment at the end of this text).

The image shows a nice little white dog in a bag.
A nice little white dog

Native English speakers automatically put adjectives in this fixed order, but non-native users of English usually don’t know the rule.

We should remember, of course, that we seldom use a long row of adjectives before a noun – usually only one or two, and then they are often combined with and or but: It was a dark and rainy night. They stayed at a cheap but comfortable hotel.

Why do we say big bad wolf? Bad is an opinion and should come before big (size). But there is another rule that says that vowels follow the order i–a–o. Think of words such as riff-raff, zig-zag, tip-top, flip-flop or hip-hop. Therefore, we say big bad wolf and not *bad big wolf.

About brothers-in-law and runners-up

In an earlier blog post we looked at compounds and and noted that some are written with one or two hyphens. Here are a few examples:

Brother-in-law (your sister’s husband or your wife’s or husband’s brother)
Runner-up (one who finishes in second place)
Cul-de-sac (a street that is closed at one end)
Editor-in-chief (the manager of an editorial staff)

How should you write the plural form of such compounds? The answer is fairly logical: add the plural -s to the main part of the compound, the significant part.

Brothers-in-law
Runners-up
Editors-in-chief

Cul-de-sac has two plural forms: culs-de-sac or cul-de-sacs

When we write the genitive form, the -s comes at the end when we talk about people: 

My brother-in-law’s new car
The editor-in-chief’s wife

However, you can also write

The wife of the editor-in-chief

When we talk about things, we use the genitive form with of:

The end of the cul-de-sac

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.

Are you pulling my leg? Some more English idioms

In  the previous blog post we looked at some English idioms. Here are a few more.

A ballpark number
A very inexact number, a rough estimate.

A bed of roses
A comfortable, happy, trouble-free position or situation.

A piece of cake
Something that is easy to do.

Back to square one
Having to start from the beginning again because your previous attempt failed.

Bark up the wrong tree
Do something in a wrong way, take a wrong approach, make the wrong choice.

Break a leg
This idiom is used to wish someone good luck. It is said that actors are superstitious and that they do not want people to say ’good luck’ to them, because then the opposite might happen. The idiom probably comes from the German Hals- und Beinbruch (break your neck and legs).

Bring home the bacon
Earn money for one’s family.

Call it a day
Decide to stop doing something, especially when you are tired or bored.

Cost an arm and a leg
Be extremely expensive.

Cry wolf
Warn that there is a problem when there is none. If you do that too often, people will not believe you when there really is a problem.

Cut corners
Disregard the right procedure in order to save time or money, so that the result is bad quality or even illegal.

Cut to the chase
Get to the point without wasting time. The idiom is said to have come from the film world. Films often ended with a dramatic chase scene. Some screenwriters created unnecessary scenes that bored the audience. When a director said ’Cut to the chase’, it meant ’Skip the uninteresting stuff and go straight to the final scene’.

Face the music
Accept responsibility or unpleasant consequences of what you have done.

Hit the sack/Hit the hay
Go to bed.

Hold your horses
Slow down, be patient.

In the red
When you are in the red, you are in debt, you lose money. Accountants used red ink when recording business losses. The opposite expression in the black of course means ‘be solvent, have enough money’.

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings
Don’t be too sure that you know what the outcome will be. The idiom refers to opera. When the soprano (and in the old days sopranos used to be pretty voluminous) has sung her final aria, we know that the whole thing is over.

Let the cat  out of the bag
Reveal a secret, often without intention.

Like a bull in a china shop
This idiom is used about people who rush into a situation without thinking and clumsily destroy things in their way. It is also used figuratively about a person who is insensitive to other people’s feelings and says or does things that hurt them.

On the ball
Be alert and able to react quickly, be competent.

Pull someone’s leg
Make somebody believe something that is not true.

Put the cat among the pigeons
Say or do something that worries people or makes them angry.

Red tape
Rules or routines that are complicated and lead to delays or obstructions; bureaucracy.

Smell a rat
Suspect that something is wrong.

Spill the beans
Unintentionally reveal a secret.

Straight from the horse’s mouth
Information directly from a reliable source, from someone who has personal knowledge.

Take a back seat
Become less active or involved.

A woman is sitting in the back seat of a car. The image illustrates the idiom 'take a back seat' meaning 'become less active or involved'.
Taking a back seat

The elephant in the room
A problem or controversial issue that everybody in a group is aware of but nobody wants to talk about because it would be uncomfortable or embarrassing.

Through thick and thin
If you stay with someone through thick and thin, you do so for a long time even if there are difficulties.

Under the weather
Feeling a bit ill or sad.

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