Make Your Editor Cry: Altar vs. Alter

Make Your Editor Cry:  Altar vs. Alter

Except in the phrase alter ego, meaning a second self, the word alter with an E is always a verb meaning to change or adjust. The word altar with an A is always a noun meaning an elevated place or structure before which religious ceremonies may be enacted or on which sacrifices may be offered. The words are homophones, but their origins are different. Alter comes from a Latin word mutare meaning to move, to change or when used in its perfect passive participle form, having been changed. The word altar comes from the Latin altāria.

So alter is a verb that means cause to change; make different; cause a transformation:


“I have altered the deal,” the villain said. “Pray I don’t alter it further.”

But an altar is a noun that is a table or flat surface where religious rituals take place.


On Wednesday morning, the members of the congregation filed up to the altar to receive a cross of ashes on their foreheads.

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