"exchange X for Y"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat Dec 3 17:47:00 UTC 2005

On 12/3/05, Douglas G. Wilson <douglas at nb.net> wrote:
> At 11:30 PM 12/2/2005, you wrote:
> >A recent item on Wonkette begins...
> >
> >      An atheist student group in Texas has set up shop on
> >      their campus offering to exchange porn for Bibles.
> >      http://www.wonkette.com/politics/porn/porno-for-lordos-140689.php
> >
> >I was momentarily confused until I continued reading the story and
> >realized that the group was trying to get students to drop off their
> >Bibles and get porn in return. To me, the sentence reads like it
> >should be the other way around. Is "exchange NEW for OLD" a new
> >phenomenon? I know Arnold Zwicky and others have looked at similar
> >reversals with "substitute" and "replace", but I don't recall
> >"exchange" being discussed.
> >
> >The more I think about this the less sure of my intuitions I get, so
> >just to confirm that "exchange OLD for NEW" is the default, I found
> >this passage, appropriately enough in a salacious section of the New
> >American Bible (Romans 1:22-27):
> I think "exchange OLD for NEW" is the default, all righty, but I think the
> above example matches the default. If the atheists give Joe some porno and
> Joe gives them a Bible, then Joe has exchanged an old [to him] Bible for
> some new [to him] porno, while the atheists have exchanged some old [to
> them] porno for a new [to them] Bible. Which is what they offered to do, I
> think; they didn't offer e.g. "a chance for Joe to exchange porn for
> Bibles" as I read the above piece. At least that's how it seems to me;
> maybe I'm missing something again.

Interesting... I think that "offering" has something to do with my
difficulty parsing this. If someone makes me an offer to exchange X
for Y, my default assumption is that the offer is to exchange my X for
his Y -- so Y is new from the offeree's perspective. Here are some exx
pulled off Google, many dealing with the recent rootkit fiasco:

"Sony is now pulling rootkit CDs off the shelves and offering to
exchange rootkit CDs for DRM-free copies."
"Sony is offering to exchange affected CDs for non-affected CDs."
"The record label is also offering to exchange the CDs for non-DRM versions."
"After first denying the extent of the problem, the company is now
offering to exchange the corrupted CDs for copies without the
"Under the terms of the amended exchange offers, Grupo TMM is offering
to exchange
existing notes for an equal principal amount of new notes."
"HCR Manor Care is offering to exchange old notes for new notes with a net share
settlement mechanism."
etc., etc.

But there's the occasional example like this:

"After numerous complaints, BMG is offering to exchange uncorrupted CDs for the
ones purchased."

So both interpretations of "offering to exchange X for Y" seem
possible, though the one taking the offeree's perspective is heavily

--Ben Zimmer

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