Thursday, August 26, 2010


Best Blog Tips


I'm posting this because I've noticed, over the last few years, that many people are confused about how to use the word substitute as a verb, and it causes much confusion when people are discussing substitutions in a cooking context.  For instance (as you will see from the expert opinions below), if you want to replace butter with margarine, you can say one of the following:

"substitute margarine for the butter" (preferred)
"substitute butter with margarine" (seems to be frowned upon by grammar experts)

Better yet (and I have to remember this myself!), for clarity, simply say
"replace the butter with margarine"!

Unfortunately, I often see phrases like this: 
"I substituted the cocoa powder for chocolate milk mix" (this is a real example)
In fact,  the person actually meant (and I could tell this by reading the original recipe): 
"I replaced the cocoa powder with chocolate milk mix"
"I substituted chocolate milk mix for the cocoa powder"

This interests me because I want my recipes to be clear and understandable, and I'm trying to improve my own language in the recipes I write.

Some expert opinions:

To substitute means to put a person or thing in the place of another; it does not mean to take the place of another.

When A is removed and B is put in its place, B is substituted for A and A is replaced by B. 

Substitute is wrongly used in:
"The Minister said he hoped to substitute coarse grain with homegrown barley"

The Minister ought either to have used the verb replace, or, if he insisted on the verb substitute, to have said
"to substitute home-grown barley for coarse grain" 
**From “Some Points Of Idiom”, The Handling Of Words by Sir Ernest Gower

if in a recipe butter is replaced by margarine, margarine is substituted (is the substitute) for butter. ... To avoid confusion, use replace instead of substitute as a verb.
See quote on Google books. From the book Quite literally: problem words and how to use them  By Wynford Hicks

For a more scholarly take on this, see also:
An article by Gunnell Tottie “On Substituting with for for with substitute” (pps. 203-207), from the book Contexts-- historical, social, linguistic: studies in celebration of Toril Swan  By Kevin McCafferty, Tove Bull, Kristin Killie, Toril Swan. (I read this is on Google Books, and you can’t quote it or copy and paste it.)

All the best!


Bonnie said...

Ohh. I've wondered about this, since I've seen the word used in so many ways. You can usually tell what people mean by looking at the context, luckily, but thanks for the explanation!

Linda said...

Grammar Girl in the kitchen...I like it!

kittee said...


and thanks!!

Mihl said...

I am not a native English speaker and I always have a hard time with this. This was very, very helpful and will clearly improve my writing. Thank you!

HayMarket8 said...

Haha! That is too funny! I have never seen a post like this before!

Bronwyn said...

Oh, the wordnerd in me loves this.

Minister of what, I'm wondering?

Rev. Ravenous said...

A couple of other recipe complaints (I don't believe you ever do these): #1 Some herb or other, "to taste", with no indication of how much to start with. #2 A "bunch" of herbs, or a "handful", with no indication of size or weight of said bunch. No doubt we will adjust them "to taste" without being prompted, but where to start? OK I'm done.

Maurine said...

I was just writing a post on using ground pistachios in the place of flour, and this post was exactly what I needed! Thanks!