Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

English can be tricky, both for native speakers and for people who pick it up as a second language. We have all these rules and then we have all these exceptions, not to mention words that sound the same and have entirely different meanings. Perhaps that’s why someone might mistakenly talk about hitting the mother load or offering a sneak peak when they should be talking about mother lodes and sneak peeks.

If you’ve got a hidden agenda, do you have an ulterior motive or an alternative one?

On some level, an alternative motive might almost make logical sense. The person might have an official motive that they explicitly express to those around them: I’m volunteering for the charity event because I want the experience.

However, the person might have a secondary or different motive that they may not tell anyone: I’m volunteering for the charity event because I want to spend time with Susie.

Except an alternative motive, in this case, would be the incorrect term. An ulterior motive is what you want.

By definition, “alternative” refers to something that can act as another possibility or another option. If you don’t have a car, then suitable alternative forms of transportation might include taking the bus or riding a bicycle. When used as an adjective, “alternate” has effectively the same meaning. If there’s an accident on Main Street, you may be advised to take an alternate route.

An ulterior motive is when a person has a reason for doing something that is different from the one openly expressed, a reason or motivation that is deliberately being kept secret or hidden. While there are some other usage cases where the word “ulterior” may come up, by far the most common is in the context of ulterior motives.

On its own, the adjective “ulterior” is defined as “being beyond what is seen or avowed; intentionally kept concealed.” In this way, an ulterior motive is also a motive that is being purposefully undisclosed. That’s why having a “hidden agenda” is roughly synonymous too.

Some people might argue that it is impossible to be utterly and completely selfless. They might say that we all have ulterior motives practically all the time, because we are always working out of our own self-interest. Do you think that’s true? Or can the reasons we state for doing things actually be honest and real?