Two remarks on reversals

Following up on my “Reversed CLEAR verbs” posting (with a section on reversed substitute): a remark on motivations for reversal in CLEAR verbs, plus a remark on the spread of reversed substitute in American English: not just sport(s), but also food.

1. Reversal in CLEAR verbs. In standard English, there are two argument-structure variants for CLEAR verbs (clear, clean, drain, empty):

the locative (from) variant: V CONTENTS from LOCATION (clear junk from the atticclean junk from your Mac, etc.)

the of variant: V LOCATION of CONTENTS (clear the attic of junkclean your Mac of junk, etc.)

It’s useful to have two variants here, since they will differ in the discourse functions of the arguments, with the DO (direct object) associated with greater topicality/givenness, the PO (prepositional object) with greater newness.

Now there is a third variant, a combo of these two, with the assignment of semantic roles to syntactic functions as in the of variant, but the P (from) of the locative variant:

the reversed variant: V LOCATION from CONTENTS (clear the attic from junk, clean your Mac from junk, etc.)

Why not just stick with the of variant? And why not innovate the opposite way:

the schmeversed variant: V CONTENTS of LOCATION (clear junk of the attic, clean junk of your Mac, etc.)

As far as I can tell, schmeversed variants don’t occur, except as typos for

V LOCATION off (of) CONTENTS (clean junk off (of) your Mac, etc.)

which is a locative variant, but with the P off (of) rather than from. (And the typos are rare.)

My speculation is that the P of the locative variants (from, off (of), out of, etc.) supplies semantic content (roughly, separation) in a way that of does not; of in these constructions is just the default P of English. As a result, the schmeversed variant is less informative than either the locative variant or the reversed variant.

My assumption here is that the innovations aren’t just chaotic confusion on the part of speakers, but arise from (tacitly) trying to serve communicative goals; some discussion of this point in my 2008 handout.

2. Reversed substitute. For substitute, there are two long-standing variants:

original substitute: substitute NEW for OLD

encroached, or innovative, substitute: substitute OLD with/by NEW

Original substitute has the virtue that it uses the substitutive P par excellence, for (as in I’ll speak for Kim, I’ll stand in for Kim, etc.), while with and by are merely agentive, but encroached substitute has the virtue of putting OLD before NEW, in line with general preferences for old information before new information in discourse organization. A third variant combines these virtues:

reversed substitute: substitute OLD for NEW

As with CLEAR verbs, there seems to be no schmeversed variant:

schmeversed substitute: substitute NEW with/by OLD

and for good reason, since it has neither of these virtues.

Now for some words on the contexts in which reversed substitute appears. David Denison, in his 2009 paper on the usage (“Argument Structure”, in Rohdenburg & Schlüter, One Language, Two Grammars? Differences Between British and American English, paper available on-line here) tracks its development in British English, where it originated in talk about sport(s), in particular football/soccer, but then spread much more widely in British usage. More recently, it’s been spreading, fast, in American English, in sports contexts (every so often, ADS-Lers contribute finds from the sports world) and in food contexts.

This actually makes some sense, since in these food contexts it’s usually clear — from background knowledge of food, or sometimes made explicit in texts — what the expected, or default, food item is, and what the replacement for it is, so that it’s easy to distinguish reversed substitute from original substitute, despite their identical syntactic forms. A striking example reported by Victor Steinbok on ADS-L, 11/8/11:

Heard on a rerun of Iron Chef America (Chef Cat Cora):

Traditional moussaka is done with eggplant. What we’ve done is substitute eggplant for potato.

Potato was the “secret ingredient”, which is supposed to dominate every dish. So you have potato replacing eggplant in “traditional” moussaka. So here you have about as straight a reversal as you can get.

And then from Beth Levin in e-mail this morning:

From the Room Service Menu at the DoubleTree Suites Austin:

Fettucine Chipotle 12.00
Fettucine noodles in our rich and creamy chipotle sauce with grilled chicken breast. Substitute for Shrimp 2.00

We assume that there’s an implicit DO chicken there.

(Remarkably, this same menu has an occurrence of original substitute, also easily interpreted:

Signature sandwiches & burgers
All sandwiches come with a choice of regular or sweet potato fries, chips, or fresh fruit.  Substitute soup or salad for side 2.00

So original and reversed substitute can co-exist, with the interpretation determined by background knowledge (potato fries, chips, and fresh fruit are all sides, that is, side dishes) and context (soup and salad are mentioned only as alternatives to sides).)

More examples from ADS-L (all reporting on AmE in food contexts):

Fox News reports that workers at the Ground Zero site have been getting drunk on their lunch hour, “taking lunchtime at the local pub, substituting food for shots and suds!”

The line, as part of a quick news summary, was evidently scripted and not spontaneous. (Jon Lighter, 8/14/11)

My wife is suffering a bout of diverticulitis, so I did the normal thing:  I consulted WebMD.  Dr. Web, however, seems to be a sadist:  “What about seeds and nuts? There’s no evidence these foods cause diverticulitis flares. But if you feel they trigger your symptoms, substitute them for other high-fiber foods.” (Charlie Doyle, 4/25/11)

The 10/27/05 “Bizarro” cartoon (by Don Piraro) has a waiter taking an order from a pig. The pig says: “The special sounds good, but can I substitute the pork chop for a fried chunk of your left buttock?” (me on 10/27/05; on Language Log here)

Note too that “substitute for” is now used generally for “replace with,” as in “You can substitute the fries for a salad,” meaning just the opposite of what you’d expect. (Jon Lighter, 10/21/04)

In these food contexts, OLD and NEW are usually easily distinquishehd. But on the Linguistic Anthropology list:

More than twice now, I have gone to our local fried chicken outlet and ordered the 8 or 12 piece dinner, which usually includes some breast, thighs, legs, and wings. While doing so, I have said:

“Please substitute legs and thighs for the wings.”

And nearly every time, the response I get is:

“So, you want all wings?”

I cannot understand how they can interpret my request in this way. For me, “substitute x for y” should mean that I don’t want y, I want x instead. But my wife who seems normal otherwise, agrees with the chicken people. What’s going on here? (Ronald Kephart, 1/31/05)

Here there is genuine confusion, though the chicken purveyors’ responses indicate that they are surprised by the order, which they interpret as having reversed substitute.

I have a few non-sports non-food examples from American sources, though they share with the sports and food examples the disambiguating effects of background knowledge and context.

Reversed substitute comes up repeatedly on ADS-L, mostly because a few contributors post about every example that comes by them — and then rant about them, as if their complaints could make the usage go away. This is annoying, but it does provide a source of examples for me, from which I’ve been able to discern that food contexts are especially likely ones for reversed substitute.

(Side note: in one thread in the ADS-L discussions, contributors invent cases of reversed substitute that would be unfortunately ambiguous — in mathematics and drug prescriptions, for example. I haven’t seen any real-life examples of this sort, and even the invented examples are often correctly interpretable given background knowledge and context. And cooperation on the part of the hearer or reader.)


4 Responses to “Two remarks on reversals”

  1. Argument structure mysteries | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] what I said on 4/28/12 on (3) and […]

  2. Steven Messamer Says:

    Don’t know if you’re still looking for examples, but here’s a non-sports, non-food example of reverse substitute in Slate:

    “The green screen, or Chroma Key, has become a basic staple of TV meteorology and, well, pretty much everything else on TV. It evolved as a trick filmmakers used to substitute boring backgrounds for something a little more interesting, or for special effects. St. Patrick’s Day green became the color of choice for these screens, mostly because it was so rare.”

  3. bwh031451 Says:

    Just because you can say something backwards doesn’t mean you should backwards it say.

    Speaking as a technical writer, I assure you that one can never assume “cooperation on the part of the hearer or reader”

    Here’s how I put it recently on a non-linguistically oriented Facebook page, to try to explain it to non-linguists.:

    I am sick and tired of people mis-using and mis-phrasing “substitute” and “replace”, using the WRONG PREPOSITION!

    If you mean to take out X and put Y in its stead, say:
    “Substitute Y FOR X”
    “Replace X WITH Y”
    “Replace X BY Y”

    when it is done, one could say
    “Y replaced X”
    “X was replaced by Y”

    If you mean the opposite (that is, take out Y and put X in its stead), use the same phrasing but with X and Y reversed:

    “Substitute X FOR Y”
    “Replace Y WITH X”
    (or, slightly less clear or common: “Replace Y BY X”)

    So, for example: “substitute butter FOR margarine” or “replace margarine WITH butter” or “replace margarine BY butter” all mean “use butter instead of margarine”.
    when it is done, one could say
    “X replaced Y”
    or, in passive voice…
    “Y was replaced by X”

    The below renderings are either awkward, ambiguous or bass-ackward, and should be avoided!

    “Substitute x BY y”
    “Substitute y WITH x”
    “Replace x FOR y”

    “substitute butter BY margarine”
    “substitute butter WITH margarine”
    “replace butter FOR margarine”

    are all ambiguous… at best.

    In all cases, remember that the thing being taken OUT is the thing REPLACED; the thing being put IN is being SUBSTITUTED.

    And don’t get me started on “swap”….

    …Okay, do get me started. “Swap X and Y” is neutral as to “in” or “out”. So is “Swap X with Y”; there is no favored or pre-eminent position implied. And you can even “swap X” (e.g. “we swapped stories”) or “swap X with B” (e.g. “I swapped seats with George”)

    You can also “swap OUT X” without mentioning any Y.
    The assumption, unless stated otherwise, is that X (which is outdated or broken) is replaced by a LIKE item which is new, more functional or otherwise preferable. For example “swap out a dead battery”)

    But “swap X FOR Y” has a you/me directionality—that is,
    “I swapped X FOR Y”, means that I already had X, and then I gave it up in exchange for Y. It works just like “trade X FOR Y”.


    But go ahead and substitute tolerance for sanity, or insanity for reason, if you like.

    Brian Hitchcock
    Retired (or, rather, At Large)

    “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood!”

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