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As a non-native English speaker, I am often confused about the difference between "alter" and "change".

I know that the following sentence is very natural and correct.

Please change the color on the wall.

Can I also say as follows? If then, what is the difference?

Please alter the color on the wall.

3 Answers 3

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Alter - to change something, usually slightly, or to cause the characteristics of something to change.

Change - to exchange one thing for another thing, especially of a similar type.

Cambridge Dictionary

Alter is most likely used when you intend to modify or even improve something existent,

Change is most likely used when you intend to replace something by another, for instance - You don't alter your house if you want to move on, you change your house for another one. - You replace it.

I took my coat back to the shop to alter the model

I took my coat back to the shop to change the model

Have you realized the difference between these two statements? - The 1st means to alter it, it may be by cutting some parts, or adding new complements, but it doesn't necessarily mean to replace it by a new one, but altering its style, maybe altering its design.

The 2nd means to change the model, i.e, replacing it by a new one, with a different layout.

Therefore, if you want to replace the color on the wall by another one, change is the right word for it, but if you just want to improve or modify the current color, which seems to be impossible, since colors can't be modified unless you paint it with another color, then you could use alter.

Please change the color on the wall.

Change works fine in this statement, but Alter could possibly change the meaning of the statement.

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  • As regards the coat, I think if you intended swapping it for a different model then change would be the word. However you could take it back to have the length of the sleeves altered. Any modification done after production is usually termed an alteration. This definitely applies to clothes, but also to other things too. I don't like the glaze in that window, let's get it altered.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 20:44
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    @SmartHumanism There are certain things that you can alter, such as a coat model, your nose shape.. And Alter in all these contexts means to make a modification, without having to replace it, it may be to improve or even get it worse. Ex: I want to alter my nose shape, it seems too small/big to me. Means wasn't used exactly because I didn't intend to say that I wanted to replace my nose, but alter it for a pleasant shape.
    – Davyd
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 11:24
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    @Smart Humanism You are welcome. I'm afraid it may not be used in a different way if not change. As I said, alter means (in the wall color context) might mean to improve the color on the wall, i.e, you could repaint it with the same color, or do any other motification in order to improve the color. However, as it is a COLOR, and there is no way to improve it unless you repaint it
    – Davyd
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 11:25
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    It's a matter of region, where you live, who you talk to.. Australia, USA and England speak the same language, but all of them have differences, England has verbs that mean something very different from USA, and the phonetic and the pronuncation also change. Many natives don't have any idea about the difference between "Your" and "You're". Considering these facts, saying "alter" instead of "change" in a daily conversation would be the most common thing. But of course, it's always better to learn it in the right way, and don't say it in formal conversations :)
    – Davyd
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 18:14
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    @SmartHumanism you mean the level of acceptance of this word in daily conversations? I presume you could use it anywhere, family conversations, friend's, job partners'.. Expect for formal speeches, like if you were going to go through a job interview, or perform a presentation..
    – Davyd
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 18:33
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Please alter the color on the wall.

Please change the color on the wall.

The verbs "alter" and "change" are not usually interchangeable.

If you alter the color, it usually means that you give a slightly different form or appearance to the color by adding something to the existing color.

On the other hand, if you change the color, it may mean that you give a completely different form or appearance to the color by replacing it with another color or by adding something to it.

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Alter comes from Latin, that means to slightly modify some peculiar quirk or characteristic of an object or something else (that already exists). Simple examples are:

  • I don't like my nose shape. I would like to alter it with surgery.

  • Eliot was persuaded to alter the passage.

You wouldn't say to change my nose shape (Do you have a replacement? :-) ) or to change the passage (meaning that you would destroy and rebuild the passage as you like it).

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    Thank you for the explanation with good examples. I appreciate it. Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 4:45
  • @SmartHumanism You're welcome. :-) Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 17:09

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