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January 26th, 2005

Alternate or alternative? / sophists and the sophisticated / if you were I -- or me?

by Barbara Wallraff

Karen Bain, of Trenton, Nova Scotia, writes: “A local radio announcer will say that a bridge is closed and motorists are advised to use an ‘alternative’ route. Isn’t the correct term ‘alternate’? Are these words interchangeable?”

Dear Karen: No, they’re not, and thank you for asking. In my experience, only a minority of people know that “alternate” can be used -- correctly -- to mean “substitute.” “Alternatives” are possible choices: “There are two ways to get across the river. Which alternative do you want to use?” (If you’re precise with language, “alternatives” should be two choices, not more.) But “alternate,” in one of its meanings, is what you’re left with when the standard or customary choice is unavailable. Hence the phrases “alternate juror” and -- as your radio announcer should say -- “alternate route.”

Beverly Seavey, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Is the word ‘sophisticated’ related to the word ‘sophist’? If so, what does this say about sophisticated people?”

Dear Beverly: Yes, the two words are related -- but this says something about sophists, too. Both words come from a Greek verb meaning “to become wise or learned.” Just as a “sophisticated” person may be either corrupt or worldly (and two observers might disagree about which way to characterize a given sophisticate), a “sophist” may be either devious or wise.

How can each of these words have such divergent meanings? Well, in ancient Greece, “Sophists” were teachers; they were generally admired until Socrates and Plato objected to their methods and began to use the term as something more like a slur. As for “sophisticated,” the lyrics to the old Duke Ellington tune “Sophisticated Lady” eloquently reveal the downside to this quality. The song is addressed to the lady in question: “Then with disillusion deep in your eyes / You learned that fools in love soon grow wise ... / Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow, nonchalant / Diamonds shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant / Is that all you really want?”

Because “sophisticated” and “sophist” can each be used in either a complimentary or a derogatory way, they are words to be used with special care.

Patrick Wright, of Redford, Mich., writes: “Your recent column on the subjunctive used ‘if I were you’ as an example. No problem here. Let’s reverse the pronouns. ‘If you were I’ appears theoretically correct but sounds so horribly stilted I can hardly bring myself to say it. If you were I, would you say ‘if you were I’?”

Dear Patrick: No, I would not. I consider a trump-all rule of English usage to be: Whenever you have to choose between being grammatically correct but stilted and being incorrect but sounding like a regular person, go ahead and be incorrect. The only thing that’s tricky about this rule is deciding whether a particular ungrammatical expression makes you sound like a regular person or like an ignorant oaf. “If you were me” easily meets the regular-person standard, it seems to me. If you were me, that’s the phrase you would use.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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