on reversed "substitute" (intransitive version)

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Mar 4 16:55:11 UTC 2013

On Mar 4, 2013, at 10:44 AM, Arnold Zwicky wrote:

> On Mar 4, 2013, at 6:28 AM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU> wrote:
>> The objection (or, to put it more neutrally, the non-occurring example) for us old-timers arises from the preposition governed by "substitute".  You can replace butter with olive oil, or equivalently (as in your Mac dictionary examples) substitute olive for butter, but you can't substitute butter with olive oil or vice versa.  In fact I still have trouble figuring out what's being moved in and what's being deleted in such cases, but as Wiktionary says this use is increasing despite the carping (or the non-comprehension) from the old-timers.
>> We've certainly discussed it to death here, and there are no doubt Language Log or other blogs on the topic, as Ben will remind us.
> i've gone through the topic on this mailing list far too many times over the years.  here's a compact summary on my blog:
> http://arnoldzwicky.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/two-remarks-on-reversals/
> i won't be posting on the topic again, since i have nothing new to add.
> but the topic is a poignant example of the failure of institutional memory.
> arnold

Since Arnold isn't going to be substituting his earlier comments with or for new ones, I thought I'd add a couple of speculations as codicils to the very useful summary and analysis at the above site.  Concentrating specifically on "substitute for" and the resultant (potential) ambiguities it results in...

(i) as noted in Arnold's blog, context often disambiguates.  In particular, (in)definite articles can (virtually) resolve the ambiguity in some cases:

I'd like to substitute the salad for/with soup        [probably innovative "substitute", i.e. OLD for NEW]
I'd like to substitute (a) salad for the soup   [probably old-fashioned "substitute", i.e. NEW for OLD]

Thus in JL's example cited there,

You can substitute the fries for a salad.

the definite DO and indefinite Prep Obj help (maybe not enough) indicate the intended innovative OLD for NEW meaning for those who permit it in the first place.

But with proper names (including drug names) or mass nouns, the ambiguity can only be resolved by context, whence the frequency of such cites in sportive, pharmaceutical, and culinary contexts, as Arnold notes:

The 49ers substituted Kaepernick for Smith.
The patient should substitute Risperdal for Zyprexa.
We've substituted eggplant for potato [in the moussaka].  [from AMZ blog entry]

--no articles to help.

(ii) tangentially relevant:

There are two general pragmatic principles, neither "inviolable" but both powerful in their own way:

(a) OLD precedes NEW  (invoked by Arnold to explain the meaning shift)

--and they often conflict with each other, especially since new information tends to be more important in a given context.  So if I say they had a baby and they got married, you'll probably decide (I'm implying) the baby came first:  OLD precedes NEW, and neither obviously more important than the other.  But if I say that Mozart wrote sonatas for piano and violin while Beethoven wrote sonatas for violin and piano, you'll infer I meant the piano was the main instrument for Mozart in those sonatas and violin for Beethoven (MORE IMPORTANT precedes LESS IMPORTANT, since there's no temporal order possible here).  In other cases, though, it's not clear.  As Arnold notes, it's plausible that the primary factor in the shift of "substitute" is the desire for OLD first (perhaps borrowed from the innovative "substituting X with Y" = 'replacing X with Y').  In this case, though, it's not clear whether the replacee or the replacement is the more important element, so I predict an ambigui!
 ty (typically again resolvable in context, perhaps with the help of an article) when only one argument is present--

Can I substitute (the) fries?  (replace the fries on the menu, or replace what's on the menu with fries?)
The coach substituted Smith (for me, Smith entered the game, but for the ambiguist dialect, who knows?)
(resolvable by "The coach substituted in Smith")

A nice instance of the clash between OLD precedes NEW and MORE IMPORTANT precedes LESS IMPORTANT is the big board for train departures at New Haven Union Station; see the 4th and 8th image down at http://www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com/bigmap/outoftown/connecticut/newhaven/newhaven/unionstation/index.htm
Visitors frequently end up missing the posted Amtrak through trains because they interpret the information in the reverse order for e.g.

(To)             (From)

because they invoke the "OLD precedes NEW" motivation instead of the (I assume) "MORE IMPORTANT precedes LESS IMPORTANT" motivation.  Yes, the "To" and "From" would successfully disambiguate, if that information were actually read and processed.  But OLD precedes NEW is a powerful thing.


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