Hooray, I seem to be doing these posts more regularly again now. They have lots of fans, so hope regular readers are pleased. Of course, if you’ve just found this post having searched for “altar or alter”, you’re going to be a bit confused by that statement, as you’re visiting from way in the future. This “Troublesome Pair” is but one of a whole series of them I’ve been posting for a few years now. Do pop to the links at the bottom of this post to find the whole alphabetical list of them!
Right, anyway … alter or altar?
Altar is a noun and refers to specifically the table in a Christian church, usually at the front, where the bread and wine are consecrated for communion, and more generally, to any flat-topped box or table that is used as the focus for some kind of religious ritual.
Bonus pair: What’s a shrine, then? A shrine is a place that’s regarded as being sacreed or holy because it’s associated with some kind of god / deity, or a reliquary or container containing holy relics. So you do religious things at an altar and a shrine keeps them safe.
Alter is a verb meaning to change (or change something or cause something to change) in appearance or character. In US and Australian English, it also means to castrate or spay an animal (so many bonuses today!)
“After she observed the seriousness of the actions performed at the altar, she altered her behaviour in church and stopped giggling during the services.”