Q: I recently came across this headline online: “Here’s What Happens When You Color Instead of Watch TV for a Week.” I thought we have to use a gerund (“watching”) after the preposition “of.” Isn’t there something wrong here?
A: Cortney Clift’s article about the adult coloring-book trend, published on the website Brit + Co, is interesting, but that headline is debatable.
The compound preposition “instead of” is usually followed by a noun or noun surrogate, as in this example with a gerund, a verb form that acts like a noun:
“Here’s What Happens When You Color Instead of Watching TV for a Week.”
The original headline might perhaps be defended as an elliptical way of saying “Here’s What Happens When You Color Instead of [When You] Watch TV for a Week.”
In fact, a majority of the usage panel at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) considers a similar sentence acceptable English: “We would have liked to buy instead of rent, but prices were just too high.”
However, the dictionary’s editors note that this usage “is somewhat informal” and would “seem a grammatical error” under the traditional usage.
A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (by Randolph Quirk et al.) defends another nontraditional usage—following “instead of” with an infinitive to maintain parallelism in a sentence.
The authors argue that “instead of may be classified as a marginal preposition … since it can have an infinitive clause as a complement.”
They give this example of the infinitive usage from A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), Margaret Drabble’s first novel: “It must be so frightful to have to put things on in order to look better, instead of to strip things off.”
“Although instead of + infinitive has been attested in good written English,” the authors explain, “many would here prefer ‘… instead of stripping …’ (which, however, would spoil the parallelism with to put that may have motivated the use of to strip here).”
George O. Curme, in A Grammar of the English Language, goes a step further and says “instead of” can sometimes act as a conjunction when two verbs are contrasted.
Curme gives this example from Shadows Waiting, a 1927 novel by Eleanor Carroll Chilton: “I saw that you were the real person; someone I admired as well as loved, and respected instead of—well, patronized.”
What do we think? If we were writing the headline you cited, we’d use “watching.” But if we wanted to keep the verbs parallel (“color” and “watch”), we’d replace the preposition “instead of” with “rather than,” a compound conjunction with a similar meaning:
“Here’s What Happens When You Color Rather Than Watch TV for a Week.”
We should mention here that even the traditional usage allows some exceptions to the use of a noun or noun-like wording after “instead of.”
“Instead of,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “may also be used elliptically before a preposition, adverb, adjective, or phrase.” Here are several OED citations, dating back to the early 1800s:
“People … called upon to conform to my taste, instead of to read something which is conformable to theirs.” (An 1834 citation from the Autobiography of Henry Taylor, published in 1885.)
“The Law was to be written on the hearts of men instead of on tables of stone.” (From The Jewish Temple and the Christian Church, 1865, by R.W. Dale.)
“I found the patient worse instead of better” … “You should be out instead of in, on such a fine day” … “I found it on the floor instead of in the drawer.” (Examples from A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, the original title of the OED’s first edition, published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)
The compound preposition “instead of” showed up in the 1200s, meaning “in place of, in lieu of, in room of; for, in substitution for,” according to OED citations.
The dictionary says the phrase was sometimes written as three words (“in stead of”) and sometimes as four (“in the stead of”). In Old English, a stede was a point or place.
The adverb “instead” was “rarely written as one word before 1620,” Oxford says, and “seldom separately after c1640, except when separated by a possessive pronoun or possessive case, as in my stead, in Duke William’s stead.”
Finally, you mentioned gerunds in your question. As we’ve written on the blog over the years, a gerund can be a subject (“skating is restful”); a complement (“her hobby is skating”), a direct object (“she enjoys skating”), or the object of a preposition (“she has no interests apart from skating”).
We could go on, but instead we’ll conclude with a few lines from the “winter of our discontent” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III:
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.