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It may perhaps be thought superfluous to offer arguments to prove the utility of the union, a point, no doubt, deeply engraved on the hearts of the great body of the people in every State, and one, which it may be imagined, has no adversaries. But the fact is, that we already hear it whispered in the private circles of those who oppose the new Constitution, that the thirteen States are of too great extent for any general system, and that we must of necessity resort to separate confederacies of distinct portions of the whole. This doctrine will, in all probability, be gradually propagated, till it has votaries enough to countenance an open avowal of it. For nothing can be more evident, to those who are able to take an enlarged view of the subject, than the alternative of an adoption of the new Constitution or a dismemberment of the Union. It will therefore be of use to begin by examining the advantages of that Union, the certain evils, and the probable dangers, to which every State will be exposed from its dissolution. This shall accordingly constitute the subject of my next address.

This is from the Federalist Papers. But I don't understand the first sentence. The noun alternative is used here like the choice between A and B... Why?

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Because one meaning of alternative is the choice between A and B.

In this case, the two alternatives (choices) are:

  1. an adoption of the new Constitution

  2. a dismemberment of the Union

As my Oxford English Dictionary states: A proposition containing two statements, the acceptance of one of which involves the rejection of the other; a statement or offer of two things of which either may be agreed to, but not both.

Compare favorably with Collins online.

  • Don't think people come here to have someone read them the dictionary. Can't you articulate and use your own words and explanation ? What's the point of a site like this if people are referred continuously to a dictionary ? – Pam Jul 5 '14 at 17:38
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    @Pam - Unlike a discussion board, where everyone is allowed to weigh in with their opinion, the Stack Exchange encourages well-researched, substantiated answers, based on fact. Naturally, people will be referred to a dictionary often on this site, because it is about the English language. Dictionaries embody the accepted meanings of English words. Also, play nice. – J.R. Jul 5 '14 at 18:20
  • I did not say that referring to a dictionary is wrong, but abusing and basing more than half of the answer on dictionary contents does not seem a good practice, especially to teach foreigners like me. (Also, as a "moderator" you are quite abusive of the comment area. Just like CarSmack did on another question, rules hold only when it's convenient to you and it's not appropriate to convey possible personal life frustrations abusing of moderation prerogatives on an international board). – Pam Jul 5 '14 at 19:24
  • @Pam - abusing is a strong word, and it has at least three meanings: (1) speak in an offensive and insulting way; (2) treat with violence or cruelty (3) treat in such a way so as to cause damage or harm. I'm wondering which sense of the word you meant to convey when you used that word to describe: (a) CarSmack's helpful answer here, (b) my comments, and (c) my use of "moderation prerogatives." – J.R. Jul 5 '14 at 20:49
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I am no native speaker, but it does not sound strange to me. I just get it to mean something like an "alternate possibility or choice".

Alternative is also a noun, not only an adjective.

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From the start of the sentence, removing the additional information, it looks like this... Nothing can be more evident than the ALTERNATIVE OF an adoption of the new Constitution OR a dismemberment of the Union.

Hope this helps.

  • Sorry I'd emphasized the wrong words, but in this form it's very clear to see the use as a noun. – Pro ingles Jul 7 '14 at 3:13
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SUPPLEMENTAL HISTORICAL NOTE:
It is true that today the noun alternative is used mostly of the individual entities among which one chooses.

However, that is a recent development—very recent in linguistic terms. Within my own lifetime the word has often been employed to designate the fact of choice presented, the possibility or necessity of choosing. I have, for instance, a copy of Merriam-Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition, issued in 1980, which gives as the first meaning:

a choice between two or among more than two things.

In fact, for almost its entire history the noun alternative has been used in both senses, in exactly the same way as choice or option is still used.

The usage will only remain “strange” to you if you confine yourself to works of the past quarter-century or so.

  • So can I say, "the alternative of an improved healthcare system for all or an utter moral depravity by the profit-seeking industry." – user8153 Jul 7 '14 at 2:08
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    @User8153 It sounds just dandy to me. Thanks for the acceptance, but this is not an entire answer, merely a supplement to the answers from Pam and Car Smack. The acceptance to my mind should go to one of them. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 7 '14 at 2:14

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