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[personal profile] randi2204 posting in [community profile] fandom_grammar
Hello, and welcome back to [community profile] fandom_grammar!  We’re in our new digs on Dreamwidth—mind the fresh paint!—and ready to answer your grammar questions.  Today we’ll ease back in to a regular posting schedule, starting off with a couple of commonly confused words that have similar spellings but very different meanings.  Let’s take a look at alter and altar, with some help from the Avengers.

We’ll start off with alterAlter is a verb that has a few definitions, all of which boil down to “change.”  It is commonly used to mean modify or adjust, and occasionally refers to the spaying or neutering of animals.  Alter comes down to us from the 14th century Old French verb alterer, which meant “to change,” and ultimately derives from the Latin word alter, meaning “the other (of the two)”—still seen today in alter ego.

We can alter a great many things:

Tony flung himself into the chair in front of Pepper’s desk. “So, Pepper, I think I want to alter my will so the Avengers get the tower if I die in battle.”

With one hand, Pepper rubbed her forehead; with the other, she opened the drawer where she’d stashed the bottle of vodka.  “Tony, the last time we changed your will, I told you it’d take an act of God to do it again… and I don’t mean Thor.”

As with other verbs, a noun can be created by adding -tion:

“Jeez, Stark,” Clint said, dropping into a chair at the conference table.  “You were complaining about something the whole time we were fighting.  Do we need to send the Iron Man suit to be altered?”

“I’d like to see a tailor try to take in those seams,” Tony shot back.  “The only alteration it needs is an automatic back-scratcher because I couldn’t get at that itch between my shoulders for love nor money.”

Let’s compare that to altar.  An altar is a noun, and it refers to a raised platform or table that can be used for a variety of religious ceremonies, from sacrifices performed in ancient rituals to the celebration of the Eucharist in Christianity.  For anyone interested in civil engineering, it can also refer to a supporting structure in a dry dock for a ship.  Altar has roots in Old English, and it derives from the Latin altare, translated to mean “high altar,” or “altar for sacrifice to the great gods.”  In Middle English, it was often spelled auter.

“Really, Rogers?” Natasha said, her tone drier than the Sahara as she cut the ropes binding Steve to the stone altar.  “Playing the sacrifice again?”

Steve shrugged with a sheepish little grin.  “I told you I’d be your distraction.”

Because weddings often took place in churches, leading someone to the altar was synonymous with getting married:

“Mr. Stark!” one of the reporters called.  “When are you and Miss Potts getting married?”

Tony gave his patented grin. “I’m waiting for her to ask me.  She’s the CEO, she can lead me to the altar.”

It’s easy to confuse alter with altar; after all, there’s only one letter difference, and your spell checker won’t pick it up if you use one for the other. Perhaps the best way to remind yourself of the difference is to remember that an altar is a noun, used for things like sacred rites, sacraments, and sacrifice, while alter is primarily a verb meaning to edit or change.



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