60-second fix: substitute for or with?

Close-up of hand holding a stopwatchDo you substitute one thing for another, or with another? Well, you can do both. But they have different meanings, writes Cathy Relf. You substitute the new for the old, but substitute the old with the new.

The easiest way to get it right is to think of sport, where, if someone is injured, you bring on a substitute. The substitute is the new person or part, which takes the place of the original.

So, when substitute is a verb, the structure is: ‘substitute [new thing] for [original thing]’.

For example, if Didier Drogba is on the field, Nicolas Anelka is on the bench, and Drogba injures himself:

Anelka is called on as a substitute for Drogba.

Anelka is substituted for Drogba.

Andre Villas-Boas substitutes Anelka for Drogba.

The new person or thing always comes first. The person or thing that is being replaced comes last.

You can substitute soya milk for dairy milk in this recipe.

Soya milk can be used as a substitute for dairy milk.

The reason people get confused is that replace, which has a very similar meaning, takes with instead of for.

Anelka is substituted for Drogba. > Drogba is replaced/substituted with Anelka.

You can substitute soya milk for dairy milk. > You can replace/substitute dairy milk with soya milk.

This structure isn’t wrong, but as readers are usually more interested in new action than what went before, it’s generally better to give them the information in that order, using substitute for.

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