Alter vs. Altar

What is the difference?


Alter and altar are two commonly confused words in the English language. How do you know when to use each one?

The two words are pronounced in the exact same way, and their spellings are almost identical too. Despite these similarities, their definitions are not related at all. It is important to learn the difference between alter and altar, because one word is used to talk about change and the other is used to talk about religion. You wouldn't want to mix them up!

Alter vs. Altar

Let's look at some examples to help you learn the distinction.

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All English Tenses

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All Tenses



Alter

The word alter is a verb, and means to change something a little bit. The opposite of alter is to preserve, or to keep something the way it is.

The noun form of alter is alteration, which means a small change. Another way to say alter is to make an alteration, which means to make a change.

Another word that comes from alter is alternative, which means another possibility or another option (i.e., a possibility that represents a change from the original choice). Alternative also means something different. The word alternative can be both a noun and an adjective.


Examples:

  1. Have you altered your hairstyle? I notice something different about you, but I can't tell what it is.
    (Have you changed your hairstyle?)

    hairstyle
  2. When I realized Kimmie was a vegetarian, I altered the menu for the dinner party.
    (I changed the menu for the dinner party, because Kimmie doesn't eat meat.)

    dinner party

  3. I'm not happy with the design of the kitchen. Maybe we should make some alterations.
    (Maybe we can think about making some changes to the kitchen.)

    kitchen
  4. I'm not sure if I agree with your idea. Perhaps we can think of an alternative option.
    (Is there another possibility? I don't know if I like your idea.)

    ideas
  5. Juan's taste in music is kind of alternative. His sense of fashion is alternative too.
    (Juan's taste in music and clothes is different from that of other people.)

    alternative taste


Altar

The word altar is a noun. It has two meanings, both related to religion. Altar can refer to the table at the front of a church where priests perform ceremonies.

altar

In weddings, the bride's father walks her to the altar, where the groom is waiting for her.

wedding

Altar can also mean a table or block used for religious rituals. Some people have altars in their homes, which they decorate with candles and pictures of saints. A synonym for this definition of altar is shrine.

a shrine


Examples:

  1. The wedding ceremony was so beautiful. The groom looked so happy when he met the bride at the altar.
    (The groom looked very happy when he met the bride at the front of the church.)

    bride and groom
  2. I like to sit by the altar. I find it very peaceful.
    (I like to sit at the front of the church, because it's very peaceful there.)

    A peaceful alter
  3. My grandmother has a small altar in her living room. She lights a candle for it every morning.
    (My grandmother has a small shrine in the living room, which she decorates with a candle.)

    a small altar in the living room


Tips

One way to remember the difference between alter and altar is to think about the spellings of the two words. Alter has two different vowels, a and e. When you notice that the vowels are different, you can remember that alter means to change or to make something different. Also, keep in mind that alter is much more common than altar.


A Story to Practice Alter vs. Altar

Henry and Luisa are going to get married next week. They are having a traditional wedding in a church, and the ceremony will take place at the altar.

The altar was recently altered. Henry and Luisa love the alterations that were made! The church was beautiful before, but the new altar is even better. Henry can't wait to meet Luisa at the altered altar.

In preparation, Henry and Luis are going over the details of the ceremony. They have written their vows, but they might alter them a little bit. The menu might be altered slightly too. Henry and Luisa are sure their guests will have a great time at the wedding, whether or not they make alterations. Everyone loves watching people get married, especially by a beautiful altar!

a beautiful chruch


Quiz

Answer the following 10 questions and then check your answers. Each question is worth 10 points.

Part 1:

  1. Which of the following is a correct definition of alter?
    1. To preserve
    2. To change
    3. Part of a church
    4. A shrine

  2. Which of the following is a correct definition of altar?
    1. To make a change
    2. To keep something the same
    3. Part of a church
    4. A small difference

  3. Which sentence is written correctly?
    1. The bride and groom kissed next to the alter.
    2. Have you altared your hair?
    3. I like the alterations you've made to the bathroom.
    4. My great aunt has an alter in her bedroom.

  4. Which of the following is written incorrectly?
    1. My brother's fashion sense is quite altarnative.
    2. I'm not crazy about that idea. Is there an alternative?
    3. The bride was so happy as she walked to the altar.
    4. My teacher told me to alter my presentation.

Part 2:

  1. The ceremony will be performed at the __________.
    1. alter
    2. altar
    3. altered
    4. altared

  2. Have you made any __________?
    1. alterations
    2. altarations
    3. alternative
    4. altarnative

  3. I __________ my presentation, and now it's much better.
    1. alter
    2. altar
    3. altered
    4. altared
  4. I like __________ music, like rock.
    1. altar
    2. alter
    3. altarnative
    4. alternative

  5. We __________ our plans at the last minute. Instead of getting married at the __________, we got married in a garden.
    1. altared; alter
    2. altered; altar
    3. altar; alter
    4. alter; altar
  6. The church has decided to __________ the __________.
    1. alter; alter
    2. altar; altar
    3. alter; altar
    4. altar; alter


Answer Key

Part 1: 1. B | 2. C | 3. C | 4. A

Part 2: 1. B | 2. A | 3. C | 4. D | 5. B | 6. C

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