Julia Maurus answers your style queries.

Dear Julia,

With reference to the word ‘substitute’, I feel it is used incorrectly, or am I the one who is wrong? I am constantly reading sentences containing the word and I feel they have the nouns the wrong way round.

This morning I was reading a leaflet about shallots and it states, ‘in recipes, substitute an onion for a shallot’. This to me means use an onion instead of a shallot. Later the leaflet states, ‘never substitute a shallot for an onion’. They are meaning an onion should never be used instead of a shallot. Surely the correct way to say this is ‘never substitute an onion for a shallot’?

I shall be interested to hear your comments on this.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah, Mt Eliza

Dear Sarah,

I understand your confusion. The primary definition of the verb ‘substitute’ is to cause a person or thing to act or serve in the place of another. It can be followed with the preposition ‘for’.

The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary (4th edition) (ACOD) states that the verb is also used colloquially to mean ‘replace (a person or thing) with another’; in this case it is followed by ‘with’ or ‘by’. The ACOD notes that this second use of ‘substitute’ ‘is highly informal and should be avoided in standard English. The example “substitute dairy milk with soya milk” can be reworded as “substitute soya milk for dairy milk”.’

Therefore, although some people say ‘substitute A with B’ and mean ‘replace A with B’, the correct use of the word ‘substitute’ is ‘substitute B for A’, which means ‘put B in the position A would occupy’. For example:

  • Formal usage: ‘This vase is too big but let’s substitute it [B] for the broken one [A].’ (Meaning: use B in the place of A)
  • Colloquial usage: ‘This vase is too big but let’s substitute the broken one [A] with [or ‘by’] this one [B].’ (Meaning: replace A with B)

Now let’s consider your example. By saying ‘substitute an onion [B] for a shallot [A]’ the writer means ‘use an onion where you would have used a shallot’. The instruction ‘never substitute a shallot [B] for an onion [A]’ means ‘never use a shallot [B] in the place on an onion [A]’.

Onions have a stronger flavour than shallots, so why would the leaflet you were reading recommend using an onion in the place of a shallot but never a shallot in the place of an onion? In the leaflet, the formal construction is used, and your understanding matches the formal usage, but it seems the writer’s meaning is at odds with the grammatical expression.

Thank you for giving us this example, which is a lesson to all to check whether our grammatical constructions mean what we think they mean.

A similar issue to note is the difference between ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’. In British English, ‘alternate’ is used as a noun, verb or adjective when referring to two things that ‘succeed each other by turns’ (that is, when switching between two things repeatedly). An ‘alternative’ is something ‘available or usable instead of another’: ‘alternative medicine is sometimes used as a substitute for conventional medicine’.

In a theatre production, for example, there may be an alternate cast member or an entire alternate cast. For the play’s season, the two casts ‘alternate’; the production switches between one cast and the other, both of which were always intended to perform. In another theatre production, there may be only one cast but there is an understudy. The understudy is the ‘alternative’ to the star actor, not the ‘alternate’. American English does not make this distinction, but Australian writers should.

Dear Julia,

I came across this the other day:


Surely it’s ‘10 Celebrities WHO Never Went To College’? Your expert opinion please.

Wendy, Vermont South

Dear Wendy,

A competition judge once pulled me up on this. That was the last time I made that mistake!

I haven’t found any reference to this issue in my copy of the Australian Government’s Style Manual, but The Penguin Working Words makes this statement on style:

who/that: The relative pronoun ‘who’ primarily refers to human beings, while ‘that’ can refer to people or things (‘which’ refers only to things):

The children who [or ‘that’] arrived early saw a platypus.

Some authorities condone the use of ‘who’ for animals (‘This is a stray dog, who keeps me company’) and for a body of people (‘We formed a subcommittee, who meet on Fridays’). Others prefer to regard both animals and groups as things, replacing ‘who’ in these examples with ‘which’.

Although ‘who’ and ‘that’ can both refer to people, ‘who’ comes more naturally in most cases. ‘That’ is often preferable after words that you might think of as people-substitutes: ‘someone’, ‘anyone’, ‘everyone’ and so on (‘everyone that came’). Use ‘that’ also where people and things are linked: ‘the luggage and passengers that were left behind’.

I recommend that, in formal communications, writers consistently use ‘who’ when referring to people. Even if some of your readers consider it acceptable to use ‘that’, by using ‘that’ you risk offending those who consider it unacceptable in a formal context or in general.

Interestingly, while the article is titled ‘10 Celebrities That Never Went To College’ in the advertisement and the web address (<interesticle.com/celebs/10-celebrities-that-never-went-to-college/>), ‘who’ is used in the title and body text of the article itself. Perhaps it was edited post-publication.


The original version of this article was published as ‘Style File’ in The Australian Writer issue 388 (June–August 2015).

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