• 3-minute read
  • 7th August 2015

Word Choice: Altar vs. Alter

They’re almost spelled the same, sound similar when spoken, and yet differ from one another almost entirely in terms of meaning. Ladies and gentlemen, we present the words ‘altar’ and ‘alter’ as a great example of why some complain that English is so difficult to learn!

Even native speakers get these words confused sometimes, but one is a common verb and the other is a noun with a very specific application. It’s therefore important not to get them mixed up, especially in academic writing.

Alter (Change)

We’ll start with ‘alter’ since it’s the word you’re likely to see/use more frequently. The verb ‘alter’ simply means ‘change’ or ‘modify’ (i.e. make alterations):

While nursing a gruesome hangover, Lily decided it was time to alter her life for the better.

It is also a word often associated with modifying clothes:

After Cooper had his suit jacket altered it was a much better fit.

Thus, if you are describing some kind of change or transition, the term you’re after is ‘alter’.

Altar (Ceremonial Table)

The noun ‘altar’ refers to a table or raised surface used in religious ceremonies. In Catholicism, for example, the altar is an important part of the Holy Communion:

The priest stood in front of the altar holding the sacramental bread in readiness.

Traditionally, an altar is used specifically for ceremonial offerings and sacrifices. This has given rise to the figure of speech ‘to sacrifice X on the altar of X’. This means to neglect something in favour of something else and is often used with negative connotations:

Find this useful?

Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.

John wished he hadn’t sacrificed his education on the altar of partying.

In this example, the phrase ‘sacrificed his education on the altar of partying’ implies that John failed to concentrate on his studies because he was distracted by his social life.

Alter or Altar?

Possibly the best way to distinguish between ‘alter’ and ‘altar’ is to remember the following:

Alter = Verb

Altar = Noun

Any situation in which you are describing something undergoing a change will require a verb, as change is an action. The word to use in this context is therefore ‘alter’.

The word ‘altar’, on the other hand, is a noun, so will always refer to a thing (in this case a table for religious ceremonies). Therefore, it’s primarily when you’re writing about a church, temple or religious rite that you’ll need to use the word ‘altar’.

Hopefully, this post has answered any questions you might have had about using ‘alter’ and ‘altar’. Similar handy tips can be found in the word choice section of our academic blog. And if you’d like a professional proofreader to check your work, try sending in a 500-word sample for free today.

Comments (0)

Get help from a language expert.

Try our proofreading services for free.

More Writing Tips?
Trusted by thousands of leading institutions and businesses

Make sure your writing is the best it can be with our expert English proofreading and editing.