Nominalized reversed substitute

From the annals of reversed substitute,

substitute OLD for NEW ‘replace OLD by NEW’

a fresh example noticed by Betty Birner, sent to Larry Horn, David Denison, and me in e-mail on the 25th:

From Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury”, pp. 84-5:

“He had lived in the same home, a vast space in [REDACTED] Tower, since shortly after the building was completed in 1983.  Every morning since, he had made the same commute to his office a few floors down.  His corner office was a time capsule from the 1980s, the same gold-lined mirrors, the same Time magazine covers fading on the wall; the only substantial change was the substitution of Joe Namath’s football for Tom Brady’s.”

I don’t know much about football, but I’m pretty certain this means “Namath out, Brady in.”

The example has several features of note, but especially its nominalized form: substitution of OLD for NEW. This is of course exactly what you’d expect from speakers for whom reversed substitute is perfectly normal, but I didn’t have such an example in my files.

Warning. Don’t write to rage about the usage; if you do, I will just delete your comment. The story of reversed substitute is now well known — see the postings and links in the “Argument structures: reversals” Page on this blog. You don’t have to use it (I don’t), you don’t have to like it (I’m amiable on the matter), but you really should accept it as a fact of modern usage; insisting that you cannot possibly understand what people who use it mean by it is just unpleasant mulish uncooperativeness.

Beyond the nominalization, what’s notable about the Wolff example?

First, it’s American rather than British. Reversed substitute seems to have blossomed first in BrE, though it’s now spread in AmE.

Second, it’s not about substituting players in team sports, the domain where the usage seems to have first caught on.

Third, it’s also not about substituting ingredients in foodstuffs or items on menus, a domain where the usage has spread widely.

Instead, the Wolff example has general-purpose substitute. By no means the first reported, but it’s always nice to have another illustration that for many speakers reversed substitute has been fully naturalized.


2 Responses to “Nominalized reversed substitute

  1. bwh031451 Says:

    Yes, one can “understand it”, but only if one already knows the relative chronology of the football players mentioned. In other words, it is clear only if the context is fully known. Otherwise, it’s bass ackwards. Or, more charitably, if one accepts the conjecture that either interpretation is equally plausible, then it is hopelessly ambiguous.

    I cleave to a preference for forms that clearly cleave the meanings, and sanction those who would sanction what seems to be intentional ambiguity, by substituting chaff for wheat.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      But you’re insisting that your way of interpreting examples with substitute is the only right one, when you’re confronted with examples that have to be interpreted the opposite way if they are to make sense. At some point, you’ll have to concede that some other people work with a different system and be alert for this other possibility; otherwise, you’re just mulishly insisting on refusing to understand other people’s intentions.
      Note that people who use reversed substitute understand original substitute; they are prepared to decide from context which system of interpretation they need to use. You can learn to do likewise.

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