Alter vs. Altar – How to Use Each Correctly

enhancedwriting/ July 25, 2017/ Uncategorized

alter vs altar

What’s the Difference Between Alter and Altar?

Alter and altar are homophones; they sound the same but have different meanings and spellings.

  • Alter is a verb.
  • Altar is a noun.

Alter means to change or to adapt. It usually refers to making changes to clothing, a document, or a building.

  • The tailor altered the dress to better fit the bride.

An altar is a ceremonial table used to give worship to a deity.

  • The priest walked up to the altar to lead the church ceremony.

Although these two words both have Latin origins, they come from different Latin words. Alter comes from the Latin word of the same spelling, meaning other. Altar comes from the Latin word altus, which means high.

Let’s look at the usage of these two words.

Using Alter in a Sentence

When to use alter: Although this verb simply means to change, people typically use it in three main contexts: editing a text or document (in a significant way); modifying the cut, style, or size of clothing items; or making renovation to an edifice.

For example,

  • My grandmother always uses the same recipes that have been in her family for years, and never alters them.
  • The man loved his new suit, but needed to alter it slightly to fit him perfectly.
  • The architect and engineers needed to significantly alter the building in order to comply with the new city codes.

It is possible to use alter in other contexts, but it might sound strange. For example, consider the following statement and question. “I thought you said the party was at 8 P.M. Did you alter the time?” It is far more common to use the word change in this context.

Phrases That Use Alter

Some common collocations with alter include adverbs such as the following.

  • Alter considerably/alter dramatically: To alter in a large manner.
    • The lawmakers altered the bill considerably.
  • Alter slightly: To alter in a small manner.
    • The school rules are fairly constant from year to year, but administrators do reserve the right to alter them slightly.
  • Alter ego: An alternate personality. Alter functions as an adjective to ego, and the phrase acts as a noun phrase.
    • Many musical performers have an alter ego to give them confidence on stage.

Using Altar in a Sentence

When to use altar: This noun can be used to describe any table that has an important role in a religious ceremony.

For example,

  • The men slaughtered a lamb upon the stone altar, as a sacrifice to their God.
  • The altar in the family home had pictures of several gods and goddesses, along with some flowers and fruit left as an offering.

Christian altars are often large and elaborate. Priests have them at the front of the church. However, many religions have their own altars. Some people have small altars set up in their homes with religious symbols and statues, which they use to pray or meditate.

Phrases That Use Altar

There are also some common phrases that use altar.

  • Sacrificial altar: An altar used to make sacrifices.
    • In some ancient cultures, a priest removed a human heart from a living person at the sacrificial altar.
  • High altar: A raised altar, or the main altar in a church.
    • The priest blessed the wine and the sacramental bread at the high altar.
  • Altar boy: A boy who assists a Catholic priest during church services. In this phrase, altar acts as an adjective.
    • The altar boy brought the wine to the priest and lit the candles.

Remembering Alter vs. Altar

There is one easy way to remember which one of the two homophones is the table. Altar has the spelling ta within it. Table starts with the letters ta. Therefore, use the ta spelling for the table.

The words text, clothes, and edifice all have the letter e but not the letter a. They are the three main contexts for alter. Therefore, use the e spelling when talking about those things.

Outside Examples

  • Francona said doctors encouraged him to return to work without restriction. However, he plans to alter some of his eating habits. –USA Today
  • In the noisy jungle of pop music, many artists speak their truth by pretending to be somebody else. Singing from the perspective of an alter ego has become standard practice for the likes of Lana Del Rey, the Weeknd, Lady Gaga and every rapper whose stage name doesn’t match what’s printed inside their passport. –Chicago Tribune
  • Newly released video shows the horrifying moment a helicopter crash killed a Brazilian bride on her wedding day last year…Her fiancé was left waiting at the altar. –New York Post
  • A centerpiece of the show is a replica of the iconic painter’s “The Last Judgment.” The fresco was painted over the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. –New York Daily News (Altar functions as an adjective in this sentence.)

Quiz: Altar vs. Alter

  1. The woman knelt down at the __________ to pray.
  2. Knowing that their relationship was doomed didn’t _________ his feelings for her.
  3. It is illegal to __________ this document in any way.
  4. The tailor __________ the old dress to give it a fresh look.
  5. Ardent believers built an _____________ to their gods, and put flowers, candles, and other offerings.

See answers below.

Article Summary

Should I use alter or altar? Both of these words sound the same, but they have no overlap in meaning. Therefore,

  • Use alter for changes.
  • Use altar for a ceremonial table.


  1. altar
  2. alter
  3. alter
  4. altered (or alters, or will alter)
  5. altar