Substitution in English Grammar

Definition and Examples

Purple cow
 Eddie Gerald/Getty Images

In English grammar, substitution (or an ellipsis-substitution) is the replacement of a word or phrase with a "filler" word (such as one, so, or do) to avoid repetition.

Consider, for example, how Gelett Burgess relies on substitution in his nonsense poem "Purple Cow" (1895):

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one.

In lines two and four, one is a substitute term for a Purple Cow.

Substitution is one of the methods of cohesion examined by M. A. K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan in their influential text Cohesion in English (Longman, 1976).

Examples and Observations

  • "Don't you ever read the Times, Watson? I've often advised you to do so if you want to know something."
    (Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, 1962)
  • "When I quote others I do so in order to express my own ideas more clearly."
    (Michel de Montaigne)
  • Niles: I'll have a decaf latte, and please be sure to use skim milk.
    Frasier: I'll have the same.
    (David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammer in "You Can't Tell a Crook by His Cover." Frazier, 1994)
  • "Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better."
    (Abraham Lincoln, speech in the House of Representatives on the Mexican War, 1848)
  • All generalizations are false, including this one
  • Alan Garner: Hey guys, when's the next Haley's comet?
    Stu Price: I don't think it's for like another sixty years or something.
    Alan Garner: But it's not tonight, right?
    Stu Price: No, I don't think so.
    (Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms in The Hangover, 2009)
  • The Process of Substitution
    "In substitution, there are two expressions [A] . . . [B] in the text: [A] could be repeated (as in [A] . . . [A]) but instead we 'replace' it with a substitute word or phrase [B].

    "An example of substitution:
    I bet you get married [A] before I get married [A]. - repetition

    I bet you get married [A] before I do [B]. - substitution, using do as a substitute for get married"
    (Geoffrey Leech, Benita Cruickshank, and Roz Ivanic, An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage, 2nd ed. Pearson, 2001)
  • Three Types of Substitution
    "Substitution comes in three flavors: nominal, verbal or clausal, depending on the item being substituted. In (133) below, one is a substitute term for meeting, an example of nominal substitution.
    (133) okay. Jules. /um/ thanks for the meeting, | let's start the next one
    One or Ones are the terms most commonly used for nominal substitution in English. Verbal substitution is realized through an auxiliary verb (do, be, have), sometimes together with another substitute term such as so or the same. Example (134) shows the substitution of looks pretty good in the first clause with so does in the second one. The next example, (135) is one of clausal substitution, where so substitutes the previous clause. The terms used in clausal substitution are so and not.
    (134) : .../ah/ Thursday the sixth looks pretty good, and, so does Monday the tenth. | how 'bout for you.

    (135): do you think we'll need an hour? | if so, how 'bout, the twenty sixth, three to four?
    The examples above are all from the English corpus.
  • "Ellipsis is a special instance of substitution, in that it involves substitution by zero. Instead of one of the lexical items mentioned for substitution, no item is used, and the hearer/listener is left to fill in the gap where the substitute item, or the original item, should have appeared."
    (María Teresa Taboada, Building Coherence and Cohesion: Task-Oriented Dialogue in English and Spanish. John Benjamins, 2004)
  • The Differences Between Reference and Substitution
    "It is important to point out differences between reference and ellipsis-substitution. One difference is that reference can reach a long way back in the text whereas ellipsis and substitution are largely limited to the immediately preceding clause. Another key difference is that with reference there is a typical meaning of co-reference. That is, both items typically refer to the same thing. With ellipsis and substitution, this is not the case. There is always some difference between the second instance and the first. If a speaker or writer wants to refer to the same thing they use reference. If they want to refer to something different they use ellipsis-substitution (Halliday 1985)."
    (Brian Paltridge, Discourse Analysis: An Introduction. Continuum, 2006)