Altar or Alter? Are You Worshipping or Changing Something?
When facing a choice between altar or alter, it’s important to consider whether you’re talking about a noun or a verb, and whether you’re trying to change something or honor it.
Altar or alter? They’re two homophones — words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.
In some cases, one might argue that the second syllable of the two words is just different enough that you’d be able to distinguish a difference between -tar and -ter, but often in the spoken word, it’s easy to miss so subtle a difference. And even if you can detect it when you hear it, that doesn’t necessarily help you choose the correct word when you’re writing it out for someone else to read!
An altar is a noun and it is typically associated with a church. It’s a table inside a church where bread and wine (or reasonable substitutes) are blessed and prepared for communion. It may also be a table where sacrifices are made.
A groom might lead his bride to the altar at their wedding.
It might even be a place where candles are lit and prayed over as a form of worship, thanksgiving or supplication.
It can also be, more figuratively speaking, what otherwise might be called a “shrine” or place of honor to a religious figure or some person that is important to its builder. Someone might build an alter to a departed loved one to help memorialize them; the parent of a missing child might similarly collect photos and personal effects of the child and spend time over it praying for the child’s return.
Alter, on the other hand, is a verb. It means to make changes to something. The changes in question, often, are not tremendous changes.
An architect might alter blueprints to add or remove some detail. A blogger might alter a rough draft to correct a spelling or grammar mistake before the post is published.
A tailor might alter a pair of pants to make them a better fit for the purchaser. The noun form of such a change would be an alteration.
How to remember the difference
I’m a big believer in mnemonics, little memory aids that make it easier to remember the difference between two or more things.
When it’s a question of altar or alter, remember the difference because the E in alter stands for edit. One could also imagine the spelling of altar in all capital letters with the capital A “pointing” upward, an indication of the religious significance.
When developing a mnemonic that works for you, one option might be more effective than another!