The Grammarphobia Blog

Substitute teaching

Q: I’m wondering which of these is correct: “substitute A with B” or “substitute B for A”?

A: You substitute one thing “for” another, not “with” another, according to our favorite authority on such things.

The book Words Into Type (3rd ed.), by Skillin, Gay, and others, has a handy section called “The Right Preposition,” consisting of a long list of words together with the prepositions they usually take.

The recommendation of Words Into Type is to use the preposition “for,” whether  “substitute” is a noun or a verb.

Here are the usual idiomatic verbal usages—with identical meanings: (1) “Replace A with B”; (2) “Substitute B for A.” And here’s the typical noun usage: “B is the substitute for A.”

When the verb “substitute” entered English in the 16th century, it mean to appoint someone as a deputy or a delegate.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1532 work by Thomas More that refers to the appointment of St. Peter and others as “knowen heades” of the church: “And they dyd also substytute other whyche were knowen heades also.”

The English verb is derived from the Latin substituere. Although the Latin verb meant to choose someone to fill another’s place, English didn’t adopt that sense of the word until later in the 16th century.

In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594), for example, Aaron speaks of a child that shall be “substituted in the place of mine.”

In the 16th century, people began using “substitute” for things as well as people. At first, it was used with such prepositional phrases as “in the place of,” “in one’s place,” “in one’s stead,” and so on.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that it was used with the preposition “for.” Here’s an 1848 example from the Dickens novel Dombey and Son:

“Jackson, who kept the boxing-rooms in Bond-street … used to mention that in training for the ring they substituted rum for sherry.”

The use of the verb “substitute” for “replace” (as in “substitute A with B”) first showed up in the 1970s, according to published references in the OED. The dictionary describes the usage as incorrect.

Check out our books about the English language