Substitution in English Grammar

Definition and Examples

Purple cows
Gelett Burgess' poem "The Purple Cow" frequently uses the word "one" as substitution for the Purple Cow.

Eddie Gerald / Getty Images

In English grammar, substitution is the replacement of a word or phrase with a filler word such as "one", "so", or "do" in order to avoid repetition. Consider the following example from Gelett Burgess' poem "The Purple Cow". 

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.

This author relies on substitution to make his piece less monotonous. Notice how, in lines two and four, "one" is used in place of "The Purple Cow". Burgess was far from the first, and certainly not the last, writer to use substitution. In fact, substitution was one of the methods of cohesion examined by M. A. K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan in 1976 in the influential text Cohesion in English and remains one of the main tools for written coherence today (Halliday and Hasan 1976).

Examples and Observations

Substitution is not restricted to writing and can be found in many types of media. See the following spoken examples from television and speeches.

  • "Don't you ever read the Times, Watson? I've often advised you to do so if you want to know something," (Lee, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace).
  • "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," ("You Can't Tell a Crook by His Cover").
  • "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,"
    (Lincoln 1848).
  • "All generalizations are false, including this one." -Unknown
  • 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," (Galifianakis and Helms, The Hangover).

The Process of Substitution

An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage, by Leech et al., provides a helpful summary of 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,"​(Leech et al. 2001).

Types of Substitution

María Teresa Taboada, in her book Building Coherence and Cohesion, classifies and structures substitution more clearly. See her example utterances and explanations for a detailed breakdown. "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?"

Taboada also explains the form and function of ellipsis substitution, an alternative to simply swapping one word for another. "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," (Taboada 2004).

Reference Vs. Substitution

If substitution reminds you of pronoun reference, this is probably because the two grammatical constructions are fairly similar. However, they are not the same and must not be confused. Brian Paltridge explains the distinction between reference and ellipsis-substitution in Discourse Analysis: An Introduction. "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," (Paltridge 2017).

Sources

  • Burgess, Frank Gelett. “The Purple Cow.” The Lark, William Doxey, 1895.
  • Fisher, Terence, director. Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace. Central Cinema Company Film (CCC), 1963.
  • Halliday, M. A. K., and Ruqaiya Hasan. Cohesion in English. Longman, 1976.
  • Leech, Geoffrey, et al. An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage. 2nd ed., Pearson Education, 2001.
  • Lincoln, Abraham. “Speech in the United States House of Representatives.” Speech in the United States House of Representatives. 12 Jan. 1848, Washington, D.C.
  • Paltridge, Brian. Discourse Analysis: an Introduction. Bloomsbury Academic, Bloomsbury Publishing Place, 2017.
  • Phillips, Todd, director. The Hangover. Warner Bros., 2009.
  • Taboada María Teresa. 
  • Building Coherence and Cohesion: Task-Oriented Dialogue in English and Spanish. John Benjamins, 2004.
  • “You Can't Tell a Crook by His Cover.” Ackerman, Andy, director. Frazier, season 1, episode 15, NBC, 27 Jan. 1994.